ISAT exams produce tearful week

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • March 10, 2008 @ 7:54 AM
At Nixon Elementary School on the northwest side of Chicago, students will finish their Illinois Standards Achievement Tests today after a week that brought some of them to tears.

At Harvard Elementary School for Excellence, the ISAT will serve as a measure of progress made since the Chicago Public Schools designated it a turnaround facility last fall.

And at four elementary schools already targeted as turnaround schools for next fall, such testing mattered little.

Welcome to ISAT season in Chicago, during which elementary students in grades 3 through 8 join the rest of the state in taking standardized tests in writing, reading, mathematics and science. The tests play a huge part in determining schools' progress ratings and educational funding. 

According to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, 62.5 percent of a school's students must meet or exceed state standards to be categorized as making adequate yearly progress.

For the first time, due to a federal ruling, Illinois schools were not allowed to use the Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English test, a replacement exam for students not proficient in English. And that raises anxiety for the estimated 24,000 public-school students in Chicago who don't speak and read English fluently, including most of the 1,053 students at Nixon Elementary. Ninety-six percent of the school's population is Hispanic and 41 percent have limited English proficiency.

Chicago Public Schools requested a 30-day delay from the Illinois Board of Education so that tests could be translated into Spanish and Polish, but the request was denied. The IBE hopes to have a new test in place by spring 2010.

"They can't read it, they can't write it, they're forced to take it," says Herman Escobar, principal at Nixon.

Proctors administering the tests delivered reports of tears rolling down students' faces. One proctor became choked up and tearful in Escobar's office.

"Their self esteem is shattered," says Escobar.

At the South Side's Carson Elementary, also dominated by low-income Hispanic students, principal Javier Arriola-Lopez, a native of Mexico and a former bilingual teacher, was prepared for similar tales of frustration in the classrooms. But he received few.

"It went pretty well. I was expecting more worriness from students," Arriola-Lopez says.

Carson, which in 2002 received a grant from the Chicago Community Trust's Advancing Reading Development Demonstration Project, has seen its scores rise 25 percent in six years. Arriola-Lopez says the school's preparations for the ISAT begin at the beginning of the school year and involve teachers, administrations and parents.

"I think the teachers do a great job in helping the students feel confident," Arriola-Lopez says. "Our goal is to continue to encourage parents to be pro-active."

Carson students finished their testing Friday morning.

At the Harvard Elementary School for Excellence, 7525 S. Harvard, students are taking the ISAT for the first time in a new school environment. Harvard re-opened as a turnaround school last fall, under the direction of the Academy for Urban School Leadership, with new teaching and administrative staffs.

The ISAT scores, which won't be fully released until next October or November, will reveal the amount of improvement at Harvard. However, it is the 2009 scores, principal Andre Cowlings says, that will matter more.

"This year, our major goal is getting the culture of the school turned around," says Cowlings. "We will probably see an increase in scores."

Last year, 31.8 percent of Harvard's students met or exceeded state standards. That's more than 20 percent shy of the federal requirements but more than twice the percent of those passing in 2005.

Harvard, which has been on academic probation for at least four years, will finish its ISAT exams Wednesday.

The results at Harvard and Sherman School of Excellence, a 2006 turnaround school, will be closely watched because four CPS elementary schools have already been approved by the Board of Education to be turnaround schools next fall: Fulton Elementary, 5300 S. Hermitage; Copernicus Elementary, 6010 S. Throop; Howe Elementary, 720 N. Lorel, and Morton Career Academy, 431 N. Troy.

Students at those schools are also taking the ISAT. But the timing of CPS's turnaround decisions means the schools will face substantial staff changes even if their ISATs show marked improvement.

Arne Duncan, CPS chief, says turnaround decisions had to be made before this year's tests to hire new teachers and administrators by September.

"There's no perfect to do this," Duncan says. "It's important to have a maximum amount of time to think this thing through."

Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.