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NCLB Outrages

Snafu spoils much of state test

State education officials are trying to figure out how to deal with the mess after at least 100 Downstate teachers saw a passage on this year's fifth-grade reading test months before it was given, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

The "contamination'' forced the state to throw out a third of the test. All answers were scrapped involving a passage called "Blue Darter'' -- the tale of a little girl who threw a mean pitch for an all-boy baseball team.

So far, extra state analyses have found the fifth-grade test was "not significantly damaged" by removing the passage, said Becky McCabe, the Illinois State Board of Education's assistant director of student assessment.

ISBE officials this week will analyze whether the scores of low-income kids were unfairly affected by tossing out scores tied to "Blue Darter.'' They want to be extra careful because of unusually high stakes attached to this year's tests.

Some schools, including many in Chicago, will face the stiffest sanctions allowed under the federal No Child Left Behind law, so "we want to make sure we're being fair with everybody,'' said Becky Watts, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education. "This is the top of the heap . . . as far as the accountability system goes.''

The Blue Darter passage was the first of three that fifth-graders tackled on their March Illinois Standards Achievement Tests.

Its security was compromised, officials said, after consultant Mary Kay Henson of Downstate Albany watched experts score part of the 2004 ISATs and later "inadvertently'' used Blue Darter materials during 2005 workshops for teachers from about 30 districts.

The scoring company, Measurement Inc., should never have released a real test passage to Henson, said McCabe.

McCabe said she is still "kinda hot'' about the whole fiasco.

"This was a wonderful passage. Teachers loved it. They are so bummed out that this passage was contaminated,'' McCabe said.

Feels 'terrible'

For her part, Henson says she feels "terrible.'' She insisted the materials mailed to her were never marked "secure,'' although ISBE officials said another consultant who received similar materials said hers were stamped "secure.''

"I would have never used these had I thought they were going to be used on a test,'' Henson said. "Anybody, I swear, who knows me would back me up.''

On Wednesday, preliminary state test results showed Chicago reading scores went up in every grade tested except fifth.

The downturn initially worried Chicago officials who plugged other reading results into a computer model that predicted fifth-graders should have done better than the state calculated, said Chicago Accountability Chief Dan Bugler.

Bugler said he asked the state to probe further but "their psychometrician came back and said he was satisfied.... So what do you do at that point?''

However, at the Sun-Times' request, ISBE agreed to analyze whether low-income kids who fell just below passing would have passed if their Blue Darter answers were counted.

Results are expected soon and will be used to determine how to treat schools with fifth grades facing sanctions because of their reading scores, ISBE officials said.

Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University's Center for Urban Education, said inner-city low-income kids could identify with Blue Darter and may not have related as well with other passages. In addition, Chicago's weak readers would have been at their peak in tackling the first passage, Radner said.

For Chicago, the ISAT snafu marked the second major test glitch this year.

Chicago officials this year went out of sequence and used an old form of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills that required so much technical tweaking afterwards, even the test's author said Chicago's small reading gains had to be taken "with a grain of salt.''

Said Radner: "This year is exhibit A on why you have to be careful how much weight you place on any one test.''

— Rosalind Rossi
Chicago Sun-Times


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