For four years public high school teachers have been saying that the twice-a-year standardized tests the Board of Education requires freshmen and sophomores to take are a waste of time and money. And for four years the board has essentially told the teachers to pipe down and keep giving the test.
Last month a dozen teachers at Curie Metropolitan High School said, enough. In a letter sent to schools CEO Arne Duncan, they announced that they would no longer give their students the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations, the two-week-long tests widely known as the CASE.
"We're not trying to be provocative," says Martin McGreal, an English teacher at Curie, located at 4959 S. Archer. "We just decided that we could no longer in good conscience spend so much of our students' time on a test we felt was so flawed."
By his own admission, McGreal, spokesman for the Curie 12, is an unlikely rebel. The 34-year-old son of a Chicago firefighter, he was drawn to the public schools, ironically, by Paul Vallas, the former schools CEO who instituted the CASE in 1998. "I'm a little embarrassed to admit this," McGreal says, "but I saw Vallas on TV or read about him in the newspapers, and I bought into what he was saying about teachers at the time. The attitude was that teachers are not working hard enough, and the schools will only get better if we bring in better teachers. At that time I was teaching in Oak Lawn, and I figured, 'I'll go to Chicago and show them how to do things.' That's why I'm so embarrassed. Because it didn't take me long to realize that these teachers in Chicago, man, they put me to shame. I've found nothing but fantastic, hardworking people here."
For a few years McGreal taught at a southwest-side elementary school. In 1998 he came to Curie, where he discovered the CASE. The test, strongly endorsed by Mayor Daley, was grounded in the notion that too many low-achieving students were being allowed to graduate through the kindness or indifference of their teachers. By instituting a stringent standardized achievement test, the system would hold teachers accountable while guarding against social promotion and preserving the integrity of a public school diploma. Or so the thinking went.
But from the outset the test--which is given in English, social studies, science, and math--was harshly criticized by teachers. "For one thing, it takes up too much time," says McGreal. "It stretches out over four days of each semester--that's eight days a year devoted to it. And that doesn't take into account all the preparation time. That's another two or three weeks."
Moreover, he says, the CASE is confusing and doesn't relate to many things teachers want their students to learn: "The English test's divided into two parts--multiple-choice and essay. The essay's not too bad. I grade it myself, and the students get to see their results. But I had some real problems with the multiple-choice part."
According to McGreal and other critics, the multiple-choice portion of the CASE, written by board officials, is often marred by grammatical and logical errors. It also emphasizes simplistic readings of complicated themes, undercutting the interpretative skills students are supposed to be learning. To illustrate, McGreal points to a recent exam question about Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." "When we read that poem in class we talk about all the possible interpretations," he says, "especially in the last lines where Frost says, 'The woods are lovely, dark and deep. / But I have promises to keep, / and miles to go before I sleep.' We talk a lot about what that means. Some kids say the narrator has to go home and go to bed. Other kids say he has a lot of things he wants to do before he can take a break from his labor--or he has things to do before he dies. The whole point is that there is not one interpretation above all others. But on the CASE they ask you point-blank something like 'Where is the narrator going?' or 'Why did he leave the woods?' Then they have to choose one of three or four answers--all of which could be valid. I can see creating an essay question on this issue asking the student to defend his choice. But it's misleading to reduce it to one right answer on a multiple-choice test--as if there is only one definitive answer. It defeats the whole point of teaching them the skill of interpreting poetry."
Worse, McGreal says, the board won't let students see the answers to the multiple-choice exam. "Usually we return their graded tests so they can see what they did wrong and learn from it," he says. "But with the CASE, we send the multiple-choice tests to the central office, and they spit back a percentage of what the student got right. If you can't see your results you can't learn from your mistakes. What's the point? Listen, I could understand if the test was intended to identify a student's strengths and weaknesses. But the CASE is supposed to represent a big chunk of their grade. It's a high-stakes standardized test that bears little resemblance to what we're trying to teach our students."
His complaints have been echoed by many other teachers, most notably George Schmidt, who used to teach English at Bowen High School. In January 1999 Schmidt published portions of the CASE in Substance, a monthly newspaper on school issues that he edits. A few weeks later the board sued Schmidt for over $1 million, charging that he'd "misappropriated" their "trade-secret rights of confidentiality and security." Later that year the board dismissed Schmidt from his classroom without pay and eventually fired him.
The board's actions against Schmidt weren't lost on other teachers. "When they went after George they sent us all a message," says one north-side English teacher. "We learned, 'Don't criticize the CASE.' You can't even get a teacher to give an example of the screwier questions on the CASE--and there are lots of screwy questions--for fear they'll sue us for copyright infringement or whatever."
Some teachers have waged their own private rebellions against the CASE. "I don't tell students this, but I don't count their grades on the multiple-choice test," says one south-side English teacher. "Why should I? How can I hold them accountable for such a stupid test? I just give them the test and ignore the results."
McGreal says he dutifully administered the test, even though he believed it was flawed. "Then one day at the start of this year I decided, 'No more,'" he says. "We were discussing the test at an English department meeting, and I just put my pencil down and turned to Katie Hogan [another English teacher] and said, 'I'm not giving it.' We started talking among ourselves, and all of us agreed--we can't just keep doing it."
After a few more meetings a group of 12 English and social studies teachers formed a group called Curie Teachers for Authentic Assessment. They chose McGreal as their spokesman (the other teachers wouldn't comment for this story), and on September 23 they sent a letter to Duncan.
"Our primary concern is that the CASE does not reflect the standards for which it was designed," the letter began. Students "do not only need to acquire basic skills such as recall and memorization, but also higher order thinking skills, including inference, synthesis, and analysis. The CASE, however, only evaluates students on recall and simple comprehension skills." After detailing other problems with the test, including "inaccurate test questions and answer choices," they got to the point, announcing, "We will not be administering the CASE this year."
A few days later Wilfredo Ortiz, the board's chief officer of high school development, called the teachers and asked to meet with them at Curie. "It was a good meeting," says McGreal. "Ortiz brought Joseph Hahn, who works in the board's office of accountability, which oversees the test. There wasn't really any debate. They made no defense of the test. Hahn recognized that the kids needed feedback. He said that it's ridiculous to give an exam without feedback. 'That's wrong. That will change. From now on there will be some sort of feedback.' I would hope that means they would return the tests so the students could see what they did right and what they did wrong. But I don't know, because he wasn't specific."
A few days after that, McGreal says, Ortiz called him at the school. "He asked if we were going to give the test," says McGreal. "We made it clear we're not giving the test. He said, 'We understand your viewpoint. But this is insubordination, and with insubordination comes punishment--anything from suspension to firing.' He didn't say, 'You're going to be fired.' But he let us know there were consequences."
On October 16, McGreal and other teachers from Curie met with Barbara Eason-Watkins, the board's chief education officer. "She recognized that there were problems with these exams," says McGreal. "She said she'd heard about them before, not just from us. She said they were going to try to come up with an 'alternative instrument.' Those were the words she used. As soon as they had one in place they would let us know."
How this will be settled is anyone's guess. According to board spokesman Peter Cunningham, the central office has no intention of ditching the CASE. "Barbara met with the teachers from Curie, and it was a very positive meeting," he says. "There were no lines drawn in the sand, to use her words. It's not like they threatened to quit or she threatened to fire them. There's only an agreement to work on it."
Cunningham said he didn't know enough about the CASE to comment on the teachers' criticisms. He directed all questions on that matter to Eason-Watkins, who declined to discuss specifics. "We had a meeting last week, and we decided that we would meet again," she said. "I agreed we would be open-minded in terms of what needed to be done to make appropriate modifications to the test. We were already in the process of reviewing the CASE. We had always intended to engage teachers in the conversation as well."
Despite his conciliatory tone, Cunningham repeats Ortiz's warning. "If teachers refuse to give the test there will be disciplinary action," he says. "We won't specify what kind, but there will be action."
McGreal says that he and his colleagues are sticking to their guns. "I'm looking forward to hearing what the board officials have to say, but we're not going to give that test," he says. "At some point we have to stand up for the kids and their education."
The Schmidt Report
It was George Schmidt, writing in the October issue of Substance, who broke the news of the Curie High 12 and their rebellion against the CASE. "I think it's great that these courageous teachers are taking a stand for their students," he says.
Schmidt knows a thing or two about taking a stand. Within a few days of his publishing large portions of the CASE in the January 20, 1999, Substance, Mayor Daley, Paul Vallas, and school-board president Gery Chico had lambasted him in the press. "What kind of teachers are they?" Daley asked reporters. "Do they want kids to cheat and get a phony grade and move on?" On January 26 the board filed its suit against Schmidt.
The suit contends that Schmidt ruined the test by publishing the excerpts, forcing the board to spend over $1 million to create a new one. Schmidt says the charge is absurd. What exactly was ruined? he asks. Board officials have admitted that the test needed improvement. They've changed it several times since he published it, and they plan to change it again. So if they had to change it anyway, why hit Schmidt with the bill?
Nearly four years later the board is still pursuing the case. (Board spokesmen won't comment because it's pending litigation.) Schmidt has sifted through board financial reports and figures the system has spent at least a half million dollars on the suit so far.
The first federal judge--it's now before a third--ruled that Schmidt couldn't raise a First Amendment defense, a ruling he's appealing. He also has a separate suit in county court that he hopes will overturn his firing.
The board's suit against him is scheduled to go to trial sometime next spring. "We have to argue in court over damages," says Schmidt. "The board originally said the cost of developing the CASE was $1.3 million. Then they anted it up to $1.4 million. Once the trial begins, we'll be asking the jury to listen to our evidence that the test has no value." If the jury agrees, Schmidt plans to keep pursuing his other cases.
"One of the only wonderful things about all of this is all the support we've been getting from teachers," he says. "Without their support, we wouldn't be around to have this conversation--because they were out to pulverize us from day one. When Daley sets out to destroy people he's as nasty as the people in the Middle Ages."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.