Taking a Stand for Learning

Chicago teachers speak out against a 'really bad test'

By Gregory Michie

Ask Curie High School English teacher Martin McGreal what’s wrong with the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations – better known as the CASE – and he doesn’t mince words. “It’s an indefensible test,” he says flatly. “It’s not a valid assessment, and it’s a huge waste of instructional time.”

Fellow teacher Umbreen Qadeer is equally blunt. “I feel guilty that I actually allowed my students to believe that this test was any sort of measure of their intelligence,” she says.

I know the feeling. During my nine years as a Chicago Public School teacher, one of the few things I truly dreaded was watching my eighth graders suffer through the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) each spring. And when the ITBS became a “high-stakes” event in 1996 — used as the measuring stick to determine whether my students would move on to high school – the scene was even grimmer.

Occasionally, I would talk with other frustrated teachers about boycotting the tests or staging a walkout. I attended meetings of a grassroots group called Teachers for Social Justice, where we brainstormed ways to fight the growing reliance on test scores as the singular means of assessing students, teachers, and schools. But come April, I’d always be right back where I’d been the year before: tail between my legs, passing out Number Two pencils and bubble sheets.

Not so for McGreal, Qadeer, and 10 other English and Social Studies teachers at Curie, a 3,300-student high school on Chicago’s southwest side. In September, the members of the group – calling themselves Curie Teachers for Authentic Assessment – sent a signed letter to Chicago schools’ CEO Arne Duncan that lays out a detailed, convincing critique of the CASE, a series of exams administered each January and June to freshmen and sophomores in Chicago public schools. The letter concludes by stating matter-offactly that its authors “will not be administering the CASE this year.” (See the letter on the Rethinking Schools website)

Taken alone, that may not sound like such a bold statement. But in the context of recent Chicago school reform, it’s a printed bolt of lightning. Classroom teachers’ voices have traditionally been ignored in the dialogue about what’s best for the city’s students and schools, and with the accountability push that began in the mid-1990s – led by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and then-schools’ CEO Paul Vallas – that silencing became even more pronounced. When George Schmidt, then a teacher at Chicago’s Bowen High School, published portions of the CASE in his Substance newspaper in 1999 in an effort to highlight the test’s weaknesses, the board sued him for more than $1 million, and then fired him. The message was clear: Teachers were expected to toe the line.

In large measure – and with gritted teeth – we did. But pockets of resistance bubbled up, and with the 2001 election of Deborah Lynch, a strong advocate for classroom teachers, as head of the Chicago Teachers Union, the tide appeared to be turning. The Curie teachers’ public stance against the CASE is further indication that it has.

Skeptics might fear that the group’s actions suggest a willingness to lower the bar for their struggling students. But the Curie Twelve say just the opposite is true. Their letter to Duncan outlines a principled argument, rooted in a belief that the CASE ultimately impedes quality instruction and sells students short. It does a poor job of assessing higher-order thinking skills, the group believes, while validating memorization and rote learning.

“For me, the spirit in which the test was created was to hold teachers accountable,” says Willie Watson, one of the twelve who submitted the letter. “But it’s offensive to me as a professional. I’m being held to standards that are not as high as those I place on myself.”

Daniel McGinn, who helped draft the letter to Duncan, agrees: “The CASE is based on the model that every English classroom in every school will be doing the same thing at the same time. But you can’t teach English that way.”

“You can’t teach children that way,” adds Qadeer.

McGreal, a ten-year teaching veteran and the group’s official spokesperson, is quick to point out that he and his coworkers are not protesting all standardized testing, nor are they against genuine efforts to hold teachers accountable for their work. They just want to get rid of the CASE.

“Tests are supposed to be tools for us to gauge where we’re going with our students’ educations, to find out where the weaknesses are, and to make adjustments,” McGreal says. “With the CASE, that doesn’t happen. There’s no feedback. You spend eight days taking an exam, get the scores back, and that’s it.”

The teachers have met a few times with board officials to discuss their concerns, but they’ve made little headway. Mike Vaughn, a spokesman for Chicago Public Schools, says the board is “always interested in teachers’ input and in working with teachers. We’re looking for ways to make [the Curie teachers] more comfortable with the exam. But they’re in the minority. The majority of teachers have given us positive feedback on the CASE.” According to Vaughn, the board has no plans to discontinue or replace the exam. He is uncertain what actions might be taken should the teachers follow through with their protest.

Whatever the potential ramifications, the Curie Twelve say they aren’t backing down. In fact, their immediate goal is to get teachers from other high schools to join them. “This is totally about teacher activism to me,” says Katie Hogan, a second-year English teacher. “How can I teach my kids to stand up for what they believe in if I’m not doing that myself?”

“It’s about changing the system from within,” agrees Lori Huebner. “As teachers, that’s our responsibility.”

Other group members, while just as determined, are more modest. “We’re not really trying to change the world,” says Qadeer. “Just one really bad test.”

Maybe so. But for students in Chicago high schools — and for teachers everywhere fighting to be heard — that would be a pretty good start.

Gregory Michie (gmichie38@msn.com) taught in Chicago Public Schools for nine years. He is the author of Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students, and is currently a doctoral student in education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he co-directs an alternative teacher certification program.