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Gaming the System

Ohanian Comment: I'm not sure this is such a bad practice. I guess it all depends on what you mean by Junior. Clearly, schools should spend less time on administering inadequate tests and more time helping these students succeed in school.

Underachievers barred from tests
Without some kids, exam scores rise

By Tracy Dell'Angela
Tribune staff reporter

December 29, 2003

An increasing number of high schools statewide are excluding some of their lowest-performing juniors from taking the mandated test for 11th graders--a practice critics say unfairly boosts the test scores by which schools are judged under federal education reform.

At Wheaton North High School, for example, all third-year students are usually considered juniors. But when tests were administered in the spring, 49 of the school's 522 juniors were declared ineligible because they had not passed enough classes to graduate in four years.

In three Cook County suburban schools--Morton East, Morton West and Thornton Fractional South--a similar policy disqualified nearly 20 percent of the junior class from testing this year. In Elmwood Park, 10 percent of the high school's 11th graders were culled from the testing pool.

In all these schools, test scores improved.

School administrators said the new definition is fairer to struggling students and the most accurate way to gauge the performance of the junior class. Critics argue that creates an uneven playing field and allows schools to dodge accountability for some of their most at-risk students.

Those critics include the state superintendent of education, who said the practice is ripe for abuse and needs to be reformed. He said officials would investigate.

"Clearly this is alarming if this is being used to manipulate test scores," said Supt. Robert Schiller. "There are ways to game the system ... and we have to take steps to ensure that doesn't happen."

Under state law, all juniors are expected to take the Prairie State Achievement Exam, but the state allows high schools to define what it means to be a junior. Most suburban and Downstate school districts have long adopted the traditional definition--students in their third year of high school.

Or at least they did until the last year or two, when the buzz started in administrator meetings about the possibility of eliminating 11th graders with insufficient credits from the testing pool, according to interviews with school officials from about two dozen districts.

State records do not track how many schools are taking that step, but administrators statewide agree it's becoming more common and that it's an option they must at least consider to keep some parity among schools.

"Most of the other schools are doing it, eliminating students who didn't complete the coursework. So as long as we're going to be compared to those other schools, we ought to be doing the same thing," said Eileen Korhonen, principal of Shepard High in Palos Heights, where administrators plan to change the junior definition in time for spring 2004 testing.

"I think we're trying to use everything we can to give us an accurate representation of where we're at."

After learning of the practice from the Tribune, Schiller said he will consider pushing for legislation that would force schools to provide proof that every graduating student has taken the Prairie State exam.

"We're going to have to assure that a student who gets a high school diploma ... has taken the state test," he said.

Educators said there's nothing wrong with defining juniors as those students who are halfway to graduation when they start 11th grade. The 83 public high schools in Chicago, for example, have long identified juniors by their credit hours, not just for testing but to determine their eligibility for certain classes and school activities, a Chicago Public Schools official said.

But the definition of junior is not uniform across schools. Also, the state has no way of checking whether 11th graders who are excluded from the test actually take it the following year when they have passed enough courses to be considered a junior.

School officials said they do test at least some of these students, presuming they don't get so far behind in credits that they drop out.

At the Morton high schools in Cicero and Berwyn, the district changed its definition of junior for the spring 2003 tests, only allowing students with 10 credits to take the exam. That disqualified nearly 20 percent of the junior class--or 316 of the 1,616 11th graders at the two schools.

Both Morton East and Morton West saw slight increases in their passing rates from 2002 to 2003. East went from 24 percent passing to 28 percent and West from 44 to 45 percent, but it was not nearly as dramatic as officials had hoped.

"It really didn't help us too much," said Assistant Supt. James Kurth. "But if the students who were disqualified had taken the tests, chances are our scores would have stayed flat or been lower."

The schools that changed their junior definition in the last three years acknowledge that concern about tests drove the decision. Still, administrators argued that it's not fair to "force" juniors who have flunked several crucial core classes to take tests that measure knowledge of these subjects.

"Sometimes [the change] is beneficial for the school, but I look at it from the perspective of the student. ... Taking the test when they are [not ready] can have some detrimental effects," said Principal Tim Kilrea at Thornton Fractional South in south suburban Lansing.

Thornton tests only those juniors who have about half the credits needed to graduate, which eliminated about 75 of the 390 students in 11th grade. This year, the school's passing rate increased from 53 to 56 percent.

Wheaton North Principal Ralph Heatherington agreed. "It only makes sense. Why put a kid through that test when they are not ready?"

District 200 in DuPage County, which includes Wheaton, changed the testing policy in 2001, the same year the state implemented the tougher new Prairie State test. Yet at Wheaton North, 11th graders exempted from the test still are considered juniors for enrollment purposes and receive junior privileges such as admission to classes, dances and student parking.

Schiller said schools should not have two definitions of juniors, one for testing and one for everything else.

"I'm sure the argument will be, `We don't want the kids testing if they are not ready,'" he said. "But if you go to the junior prom ... if you have the privileges of a junior, then you should be considered a junior for testing. You can't have it both ways."

Downers Grove South High School, which tests all of its juniors, studied what would happen to scores if flunking students were not tested in 11th grade.

The analysis indicated that, among the current class of 11th graders, the changed definition would disqualify some 40 of the 115 African-American and Latino juniors, administrators said. Each subgroup would then be too small for the school to be judged by their test performance.

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires that schools with significant numbers of minority students make sure that those subgroups meet standards on school tests.

Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune

— Tracy Dell\'Angela
Underachievers barred from tests
Chicago Tribune


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