PSAT for 5-6-14: Tell your congressman to vote no on HR10 to expand charter schools

May 6th, 2014

psat_logoThe U.S. House is likely to vote this week on HR10, the charter proliferation bill.

Of course, they call it the “Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act.”

Please take a moment today or tomorrow to call or e-mail your Congressman asking him or her to vote NO on HR10. Here’s the fax that PURE sent to Chicago’s delegation:

Chicago parents oppose charter proliferation in HR10

Look at charter school evidence, not expensive PR


This week you will be asked to consider HR10, a bill that funds more charter schools without putting into place adequate accountability requirements. Charter school advocates will try to spin the facts while they ask you to open up the nation’s wallet for more of these privatized programs

Recently, Chicago’s two major newspapers made it very clear that charter schools can be very problematic and do not provide better academic results to justify additional millions of dollars that could be directed towards struggling neighborhood public schools (“Chicago’s Noble charter school network has tough discipline policy; critics say too many students are being expelled,” Chicago Tribune, 4/7/14; “Charter schools show little difference in school performance,” Chicago Sun-Times, 4/7/14).

A research report released yesterday by the National Education Policy Center, “Wait, Wait. Don’t Mislead Me! Nine Reasons to Be Skeptical About Charter Waitlist Numbers,” concludes that charter advocates vastly overestimate the number of students on their waiting lists. No doubt because charter schools have not proven to be better than traditional schools, privatization promoters are using the “waiting list” argument to explain the urgent need for Congress to pay for more charter schools seats. Yet the truth is that even this argument is shaky.


  • Pay attention to the research, not the rhetoric about charter schools.
  • Demand more accountability for charter schools, including a requirement that they hold open, public meetings and provide transparency on student discipline and attrition.
  • Understand that what parents really want is a high-quality, well-funded neighborhood school.
  • Vote no on HR10 in its current form.

Thank you!

Testimony to the CPS Truancy Task Force

May 1st, 2014

Student drawing from Wheelock Bebell Haney study

I prepared testimony for one of two public hearings held by the Chicago Public Schools Truancy Task Force, a body mandated by state legislation. The meeting, held in a bank community room on the South Side, attracted more than 150 people, most of whom (including myself) were not given a chance to speak due to the very leisurely manner in which the chair conducted the meeting resulting on only 45 minutes of a 2-hour meeting actually consisting of public comment.

I was able to submit my testimony as written. Here are some excerpts:

Since 1996, the Chicago Public Schools has used various standardized tests as high-stakes measures first just for students, for their promotion after grades 3, 6 and 8, and, more recently as high-stakes measures for teacher, principal and school evaluation. My purpose in testifying here today is to share some concerns about the connection between the high-stakes testing and over-testing of our students and student motivation, truancy and drop out

My comments today will highlight some points raised in three scholarly reports, and offer some recommendations.

The first report is the 2003 paper, “The Effects of High-Stakes Testing on Student Motivation and Learning,” by Audrey L. Amrein and David C. Berliner.

The authors pose the question “Do high-stakes testing policies lead to increased student motivation to learn? And do these policies lead to increased student learning? No, according to four independent achievement measures.”

They add, “The evidence shows that such tests actually decrease student motivation and increase the proportion of students who leave school early. Further, student achievement in the 18 high-stakes testing states has not improved on a range of measures, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, despite higher scores on the states’ own assessment.”

The second report is the 2000 study, “High Stakes Testing and High School Completion,” by Clarke, Haney and Madaus. The conclusion of this report is that “high stakes testing programs are linked to decreased rates of high school completion.”

Some of the report’s finding:

  • In schools with proportionately more students of low socio-economic status that used high stakes minimum competency test, early drop out rates – between eighth and tenth grades – were 4 to 6 percentage points higher that in schools that were similar but for the high-stakes test requirement.”
  • Students who performed poorly on the Florida high school graduation tests were more likely to leave school, but that this relationship was affected by students’ grades…for students with moderately good grades, failure on the test was associated with a significant increase in the likelihood of dropping out of school.
  • Research findings in Texas suggest that because of the requirement that student pass graduation tests as well as other grade-level exit tests, some 40,000 of the state’s 1993 sophomores dropped out of school.
  • Research on the effects of grade retention has generally concluded that, at least beyond the early elementary grades, its harms outweigh its purported benefits, in particular, being overage for grade as a results of being held back eats away at students’ sense of academic worth. The impact is especially severe for black students.

A third report is the 2000 “What can Student Drawings Tell Us About High-Stakes Testing in Massachusetts?” by Wheelock, Bebell and Haney. Their conclusion is that the majority of drawings portrayed students as “anxious, angry, bored, pessimistic, or withdrawn from testing.”

Stupid PARCC Tricks

May 1st, 2014

Entertainer 5Tuesday night’s More Than a Score Forum was great. CPS parents Julie Fain, Chris Ball, and Sherise McDaniel, and teachers Michelle Strater Gunderson (CPS) and Paul Horton (U of Chicago Lab School), powerfully covered topics including testing and school closings, alternative assessment, opting out, and Common Core. Thanks also to Carolyn Brown who emceed.

Chris’s presentation on sample questions from the PARCC Common Core tests was a highlight – both in Chris’s humorous presentation and in the amazing absurdity of the questions themselves which, as Chris pointed out, are the ones they WANT us to see. (PARCC stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which is the consortium that is writing the Common Core tests Illinois will use beginning next year.)

Everyone at the forum felt that more people need to see the sample questions and judge for themselves whether these are the “better tests” that Education Secretary Arne Duncan promised us.

The example I will share today is a simple one. A third-grade test includes a story about creatures who were having a bad day. It includes this sentence: “And they were cross — oh so cross!” One question asks what the word “cross” means in the story. The choices are:

a) excited

b) lost

c) upset

d) scared.

Here’s how defines the adjective “cross”: “angry and annoyed; ill-humored; snappish: Don’t be cross with me. Synonyms: petulant, fractious, irascible, waspish, crabbed, churlish, sulky, cantankerous, cranky, ill-tempered, impatient, irritable, fretful, touchy, testy.”

Apparently the wanted answer is “upset,” which does not appear as any of the choices above. It’s just not a very good synonym for “cross.”

But third graders are supposed to choose a “right” answer that the dictionary doesn’t even suggest.

Don’t even get me started on the Pinkerton Pig fiasco. Check out Chris’s PARCC PowerPoint here.

Better tests? Makes me feel kind of “testy.”

Gated communities for already advantaged students

April 28th, 2014


Today’s story by Chicago Sun-Times Watchdog reporters Tim Novak and Chris Fusco exposes the imbalance of white students in Chicago’s four north side selective enrollment high schools, and the fact that the disproportionate number of white students has become even more lopsided since the courts ended the Desegregation Consent Decree in 2009.

Sun-Times figures show that white students made up an average of 41 percent of freshmen admitted to Jones, Whitney Young, Northside Prep, and Walter Payton over the past four years, compared to 29 percent in 2009. The overall enrollment of white students in CPS is about 9%.

I met with Novak and Fusco as they were preparing the story. I made the point (which did not specifically end up in their story…) that test scores unfairly act to keep low-income students out of selective enrollment high schools, since test scores are most closely aligned to economic status.

But their analysis showed that the system is even more insanely unfair. For 80% of the applicants, test scores are factored in with census tract data in a 4-tier system that actually forces students from households with an average income of $42,000 near 95th and Halsted to compete with the test scores of Gold Coast students whose families make over $300,000 per year.

How do you suppose that match-up usually turns out?

Back in 2009, we recommended that the selective enrollment high school process factor in actual family income, not community income, and that it use income level to offset test score advantages of white and higher-income students. Even cynical PURE didn’t suspect the extent to which CPS seems to have actually rigged the system.

Pander Prep

Mayor Emanuel’s proposal to locate a new Obama College Prep on the north side rather than the south side where the President worked and lived — and where the most under-resourced and least popular selective enrollment high schools are – is just one more example of the utter cluelessness of Chicago’s white power elite. One point of mine that did make it into print in the Sun-Times story is that the explosion of the most attractive selective enrollment “seats” on the north side didn’t happen until after race was removed as an criteria for acceptance.

Whose schools???

Testimony to the Senate Education Committee 4-25-14

April 26th, 2014

Presented at the Illinois Senate Education Committee Subject Matter Hearing on Student Testing April 25, 2014

SB 2156 and SB 3460 (Cunningham)


Good afternoon. My name is Julie Woestehoff and I am the Executive Director of Parents United for Responsible Education, or PURE, a 26 year old parent-based public school advocacy organization. For more than 15 years, since the beginning of the high-stakes testing era, I have been working with parents to challenge the misuse and overuse of standardized testing in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and across the country.

There is nothing inherently wrong with standardized tests that are used properly, as designed and in a limited way, as just one of a set of true multiple measures taken over time with a variety of tools.

What is wrong – very wrong – is the misuse and overuse of standardized testing that has been growing at an alarming rate in recent years. It is critical that legislators, other public officials, and the general public understand that this is NOT the kind of testing that we – or even my grown children — experienced. When you hear what the parents and teachers who are here today tell you about what testing is like in our schools today, you will understand that the current misuse and overuse of testing is seriously harming our children and drastically interfering with their opportunity to receive a meaningful education.

I want to thank Senator Cunningham for introducing SB 2156 and SB 3460, which address some of the major problems created by today’s inappropriate use of standardized tests. My purpose in testifying here today is to share some facts in support of these bills and to offer some further recommendations to address the crisis of test misuse and overuse in our schools.


Too many tests – PURE supports SB 2156, NAEP model

PURE supports the annual limitation on the number of standardized academic achievement tests given to students as proposed in SB 2156. As illustrated in the attached chart created by the coalition More Than a Score, which PURE helps convene, the total number of standardized test “events” in CPS this year may run close to 300 for all students and all administrations (see Attachment 1 – More Than a Score chart, “The Reality Behind the ‘New, Reduced’ CPS Assessment Policy”).

This does not include the enormous amount of time given over to test preparation and review.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), or the “Nation’s Report Card,” tests students only in the “critical juncture” years of 4th, 8th and 11th grades, and tests only a sampling of students in those grades, with no stakes attached for students. Using NAEP’s highly-respected testing schedule would help put the brakes on the massive expansion of testing that has hijacked our children’s education.

Recommendation: Any large-scale statewide standardized testing system should be limited to sample testing in three benchmark years only.


Testing misuse violates professional and ethical standards

Using any standardized achievement test for a purpose for which it was not designed violates nationally-accepted standards of the testing profession, of the state of Illinois and the U. S. Department of Education, and the guidelines of the test makers themselves (see Attachment 2 – PURE Fact Sheet: “Testing professionals oppose use of standardized test scores as sole or primary measures in high-stakes decisions”).

For example, according to the makers of the SAT-10, which CPS has been using to retain students:

Achievement test scores may certainly enter into a promotion or retention decision. However, they should be just one of the many factors considered and probably should receive less weight than factors such as teacher observation, day-to-day classroom performance, maturity level, and attitude.

But this has not stopped CPS from their inappropriate use of the Iowa test in the 1990’s, then the ISAT/SAT 10 in recent years and, this year, the NWEA MAP. CPS also uses these tests in other ways for which they were not designed including school closing and turnaround decisions as well as teacher and principal evaluation.

CPS will say that it does use multiple measures to make promotion and other high-stakes decisions, but that is simply not true. In fact, the CPS promotion policy sets up multiple barriers, not multiple measures. That is, any one measure by itself will trigger the decision to send a student to summer school, and any one measure by itself can cause a student to flunk summer school and be retained. Test scores also vastly outweigh any other measure in the CPS school accountability system.

Recommendation: State law should prohibit the use of state tests in making high-stakes decisions about students.


Standardized tests inappropriate for young children: PURE supports SB 3460

We support the ban on standardized testing for children in grades 2 and younger. Early childhood professionals urge “great caution” in the use of and interpretation of standardized tests of young children’s learning (see Attachment 3 – National Association for the Education of Young Children, “Assessment of Young Children” p. 10 and “Program Evaluation and Accountability” p. 14).

They raise concerns that standardized tests may not be based on knowledge of child development and are therefore not suited to the developmental abilities of young children. Tests often miss important objectives of early childhood like creativity, problem-solving, and social and emotional development, which can lead to teaching of skills in ways that are not effective or meaningful, to the narrowing of the curriculum, and to less time for play and hands-on learning experiences that are important foundations for later school success. In other words, focusing on testing in the early years may lead to less effective teaching and learning, not the other way around.

Recommendation: We support the language of SB 3460.

Test bias

There are significant racial and cultural biases in standardized tests that must be taken into consideration. I’m not just referring to the obvious bias of questions about yachts and tennis doubles, which “bias review” is supposed to be addressing. Research has shown that test questions that are answered correctly more often by black students than by white students have been rejected by test makers, apparently in an effort to assure that test results showing African-Americans scoring lower than whites are “consistent” from year to year (see Attachment 4 – PURE Fact Sheet, “Racial Bias in Standardized Tests” and Attachment 5 – Fair Test, “Racial Justice and Standardized Educational Testing”).

It is well-known that the best predictor of standardized test scores is economic level. It’s no coincidence that the schools in our poorest communities in Chicago have been labeled as failures based on test scores, and are the main targets for closure and privatization by charters or privately-run turnaround agencies.

Other recommendations

There are far better ways to assess children that support rather than take time and resources away from teaching and learning, and that do not harm children the way test misuse and overuse harms them. Over the years, PURE has proposed balanced assessment legislation to assure that students and schools are assessed using valid, appropriate, multiple measures. I attach a summary of our most recent proposal (see Attachment 6 – “PURE Proposal: Legislative Changes to Implement a Balanced State Assessment System for Illinois”).

Examples of successful use of such assessments include the New York Performance Standards Consortium (see Attachment 7 – Fair Test, “New York Performance Standards Consortium Fact Sheet” and Attachment 8 – FairTest, “A Better System for Evaluating Students and Schools”).

PURE has proposed the common sense notion of going back to using student report cards as the primary evaluation tool for student work. There may have been some validity to concern about grade inflation 15 years ago, but if report cards are still useless, it is the responsibility of the district to provide correctives. Report cards are far more meaningful to parents, who are not allowed to see any part of the tests that currently dictate major life decisions about their children. PURE’s proposal has also been endorsed by More Than a Score (see Attachment 9, PURE, Proposal for a Year-Long Student-Centered Elementary Promotion Policy for CPS”).

Finally, we recommend an explicit opt out right for parents in state law. Because districts have acted irresponsibly by violating standards and ethics of the assessment profession, parents must have the ability to advocate for and protect our children. When CPS parents opted out or tried to opt their children out of a meaningless administration of the ISAT last month, they were harassed, their children experienced retaliation, and investigators used pressure tactics to get students to report on possible teacher involvement. This is unacceptable.

Sample opt out language from California state statutes: “A parent or guardian may submit to the school a written request to excuse his or her child from any or all parts of any test provided under (testing statue reference). Notwithstanding any provisions of law, a parent’s or guardian’s written request to school officials to excuse his or her child from any or all parts of the assessments administered pursuant to this chapter shall be granted.”

Thoughts on preparing for the testing legislative hearing

April 25th, 2014



What’s behind the epidemic of inappropriate testing?

I once shared a very interesting bus ride to the airport with the president of Riverside Publishing, who write the Iowa Tests, back when Paul Vallas was using the test as a grade promotion barrier. Shortly after our visit, Riverside decided to stop providing CPS with grade-equivalent score labels which CPS used to make the political claim that flunked students were simply reading or doing math “below grade level.” Unfortunately, that did not stop CPS from continuing to misuse the test.

Certainly one reason tests are being misused and overused may be that there’s just too much money in testing for test publishers to want to police the use of their own tests. This is about to become an even more lucrative industry with the onset of the Common Core State Standards and CCSS tests.

Another reason may be the political pressure from well-funded groups that are out to privatize public education and undermine the teaching profession. This pressure forces otherwise well-meaning school officials to throw out what they know about teaching and learning and replace it with test prep.

A third reason may be that, as we move into the Common Core testing era, students are taking tests to test test questions for test publishers and to get data about how they might do on future tests. School officials sometimes use this information to identify the students who score closest to the all-important “meets” cut-off point, and focus extra school resources on those “bubble” kids.

It’s important to note that these reasons have everything to do with the best interests of adults, and nothing to do with what’s best for children.

Think of tests as steroids. Properly used in a limited manner by conscientious professionals, steroids can improve health. But when steroids are misused or overused, major health problems can ensue. Unfortunately, many school officials are like bad coaches, pushing steroids on the players because other schools are doing it, in a perverse effort to stay competitive.



April forums in full bloom

April 22nd, 2014

Tulips 05It’s April. inBloom may be kaput but testing and related education forums are in full bloom! Fortunately they are all indoors so we won’t freeze!

Wednesday, April 23, 7 – 8 pm: Good Morning Mission Hill film screening at Francis Parker School, 330 W Webster, followed by a panel discussion on democratic education.

Thursday April 24, 6 – 9 pm: DePaul School of Education Spring Forum, DePaul Student Center, Room 120, 2250 N Sheffield. Imagine a public school with a portfolio-based constructivist approach to teaching and learn, staff based decision-making and governance, modeled on democratic and progressive education principles, fostering active and engaged learning, with a broad and rich curriculum.

Saturday, April 26, 10 am to noon, Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division St.:
A Quality Education for Every Child, a Talk with Pasi Sahlberg
Raise Your Hand is sponsoring a talk by Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland

Tuesday, April 29 at 6 pm at Union Park, 1500 W Randolph. Of course, the More Than a Score testing forum, Changing the Stakes on Testing. More here!

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.