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Controversial Test Brings `Failing' Tag

Ohanian Comment: A sign of the times: high-stakes testing now gets the headline descriptor "Controversial Test." It's a start. This principal offers a good quote at the end of the article.

Rollins School in Aurora has managed to pull off a few test score miracles this year with one of the suburbs' most vulnerable student populations--a cash-strapped district where nearly every child is low-income and minority.

The number of 5th graders passing reading tests jumped 32 percent in one year, and the school's math and writing scores rival those at some of the most affluent schools in the area.

Despite these successes, Rollins is considered a failure under the No Child Left Behind Act--a designation triggered solely by the results of an English proficiency test taken by the school's newest immigrant children and one that some say points to the capricious nature of federal education reform laws.

The failing label is crushing to staff morale and threatens to drain resources from the programs that have fueled Rollins' turnaround. And the fact that it was caused by a test that never was intended to measure academic achievement makes the label all the more painful.

"We celebrated our scores. We know we did well. But we're still considered a failure," Principal Karen Hart said. "It's just hard to put on your game face and keep going when it's not recognized beyond our four walls."

Rollins appealed its "failing" designation to the Illinois State Board of Education, but an advisory committee denied that appeal Thursday.

A final decision is expected from the full board next month, but what it means for Rollins and five other schools in East Aurora District 131 is that the state thinks they belong on a list of academically struggling schools that must pay for students who want to switch to higher-performing schools.

Now Rollins officials face the painful prospect of setting aside money that once went to reading specialists and after-school programs so it is available for bus transportation to "better" schools and private tutoring services.

The battle over the once-obscure Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English test promises to heat up as schools with large immigrant populations announce state test results that put them on the wrong side of federal education reform laws. State education officials defend IMAGE as an appropriate achievement measure approved by the federal government. But others disagree.

"The way scores are reported for IMAGE clearly undermines the abilities of immigrant students and English-language learners," said Christie Aird, East Aurora's elementary school director, in testimony last month to a state Senate committee exploring the implementation of No Child Left Behind. "The manner in which the IMAGE results are being reported and used in the state's formula for determining annual yearly progress is not equitable, valid or reliable."

The stakes are even higher this year because it is the first year schools will be held accountable for the performance of subgroups of students, including those with limited English. Most limited-English students take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test like everyone else, but the newest immigrants who know the least English take the IMAGE instead.

That's how Rollins got into trouble. About 55 percent of Rollins' 3rd and 5th graders met or exceeded standards for ISAT reading--far above the 40 percent passing threshold set by the state. Yet for the IMAGE reading test, taken by about 40 pupils, only 18 percent of 3rd and 5th graders scored high enough to be considered "passing," which brought down the entire limited-English subgroup's scores.

Educators argue that cutoff point is unfair because IMAGE was designed to measure whether bilingual students had learned enough English to pass the state's achievement tests, not their mastery of language-arts skills.

Students in IMAGE's top-scoring category of "transitioning" are presumed to have an 80 percent chance of passing the state reading test. But educators say any student new to the country who knows little English is going to score at the bottom levels of IMAGE, no matter how bright the child or how inspired the classroom instruction.

The state added a math component to the IMAGE exam two years ago--essentially a language-simplified version of the ISAT math exam--and the U.S. Department of Education approved IMAGE as an achievement test.

Gail Lieberman, the state education board's liaison for No Child Left Behind, said the legitimacy of IMAGE as an achievement test has been debated fiercely during the last year by bilingual educators, who argue that the scores reflect a school's immigration patterns more than the quality of its instruction.

While acknowledging there are problems in the way the test assesses the abilities of students in bilingual programs, Lieberman said the state had to use IMAGE or come up with a new test that would satisfy federal requirements. She said the state cannot allow schools to toss out their IMAGE scores or weigh them any differently than other achievement tests.

"Every kid has to be tested," she said. "And if that's your population, that's your population. You need to plan for how you're going to educate them."

Hart knew Rollins' appeal was a long shot because the state cannot risk opening the doors to scores of other schools that find themselves in the same predicament. Now, she's starting to wonder whether the school will shed its failing label.

"It's scary. Sometimes I feel like answering the phone, `Rollins Test Center' instead of Rollins School," Hart said. "We're dancing as fast as we can. But we're not all Lake Woebegone, and we're not all going to be above average."

— Tracy Dell\'Angela
School Says exam leaves unfair mark: Controversial test brings `failing' tag
Chicago Tribune
2003-10-31
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-0310310184oct31,1,1265599.story


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