By Ben Joravsky

As his mother tells the story, Millord was a bright and ambitious nine-year-old boy who enjoyed school, loved to read, and wanted to be a scientist. Then he flunked the test.

Two years ago he scored below grade level on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and was held back, in accordance with the Chicago Board of Education’s testing and retention policy. Since then his whole attitude’s changed. He doesn’t like school or read as much, and he cringes and cries at the prospect of taking a new test. He’s afraid of being held back again.

“It’s gone too far, this testing,” says Janet Edmond, the boy’s mother. “It’s only one test. We’re giving it too much importance over our children’s lives.”

Her story was one of four featured in a press conference held last week by PURE (Parents United for Responsible Education) to highlight the discrimination complaint it was filing with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Specifically, PURE contends that the board’s testing and retention policy “discriminates against students based on race, color, national origin, and sex.” The complaint’s the latest salvo in PURE’s resistance to the board’s policy of retaining children who score below grade level on the Iowas. “It’s bad policy,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of PURE. “And it’s getting out of hand.”

Within a few hours of PURE’s press conference, schools CEO Paul Vallas had responded with his own statement that denied the accusations of discrimination and denounced the accusers. “PURE is a paid advocacy group with a vested interest in preserving the status quo,” Vallas said in his release. “It opposes high standards, accountability and the elimination of social promotion.”

The harsh words were not unexpected. Vallas is known to swing hard at critics–and few groups have been as critical as PURE. Over the years he’s swung hardest in defense of retention, which he, board president Gery Chico, and Mayor Daley rank among their great achievements.

Since they instituted retention in 1996, their stated goal has been the eradication of what Chico calls the un-American policy of social promotion–that is, advancing students whether or not they’re at grade level. Accountability was the key; students would be held to a single set of rigorously enforced standards. If they didn’t score roughly at grade level on standardized achievement tests (for grade-schoolers that meant the Iowas) they’d be sent to summer school. If they didn’t attend summer school, or if after six weeks of summer training they still flunked the Iowas, they’d be held back. And they’d be held back again and again if necessary. (After three years of retention, eighth graders would be dumped into something called a “transition center.”) Call it tough love. Any other policy, no matter how well intended, was coddling.

At first the program was limited to eighth graders preparing to enter high school. But in 1997 it was expanded to include third and sixth graders. This spring Daley announced it would be expanded again to include as many as 70,000 first and second graders by next summer. “This is not Saigon on top of the U.S. embassy,” Chico told reporters. “We are not leaving anybody behind. Thousands of kids are being helped by this who in the past were left to float and drift. It’s not going to happen on our watch.”

Such passionate declarations made it clear that Daley and his aides viewed test scores as the primary measurement of how they ran the schools. The message that’s been passed down the chain of command to teachers is that virtually nothing else matters, at least not in the weeks leading to the winter exam period.

In each of the last three years, Daley and his aides have proclaimed the program a success, churning out statistics that show unprecedented leaps in scores throughout the city. Their determination has been hailed by politicians, business leaders, and editorial writers who say the time has come to show children that hard work pays dividends. “In the end students and their parents need to recognize and accept the reality that at some point they have to take a test and pass it,” the Sun-Times editorialized. “If they don’t pass it, they can take it again, until they do.”

Closer to the action it’s a different story. Teachers resent the intrusion of test preparation in their classrooms– “as if nothing else we do matters,” as one first-grade teacher put it. Some say the Iowas were never meant to be a gatekeeper–indeed, even the tests’ makers say the board’s misusing the exams. Teachers call the Iowas a limited measure of progress that records a student’s ability to take a standardized multiple-choice exam. And they say the exams’ usefulness as an objective yardstick is undermined when students are taught how to take them.

“It’s great to call for the abolition of social promotion, but the Iowa was not meant for that purpose,” says Woestehoff. “Some kids just aren’t going to do well on this test. There are trick questions designed to make sure that not everybody will get the right answer. There’s one where they ask, ‘A sage is a person who is wise, old, or mean,’ and something else which I can’t remember. Well, to some people you can’t be wise without being old. So they’ll think about it and time will pass and they won’t score as high. That doesn’t mean they can’t read. That means they had a complex response and they spent too much time on one question.”

More troublesome is the unaccountability of the central office, says Woestehoff. Test results are passed on to reporters in the form of press releases that stress the board’s positive analysis of the results and are largely limited to numbers that support the analysis. There’s no public posting of raw data, including such essential information as a grade-by-grade breakdown of exactly how many students took the test and how many did not; of how many flunked and how many passed; of how many went to summer school and how many got waivers forgiving them that requirement; of how many took the test again after summer school and how many did not; of how many who took the test again passed and how many failed; and of how many were finally promoted and how many were retained. Anyone seeking to make an independent analysis of the numbers has to depend on the information the press office hands out.

And that information is often inconsistent. For example, in the spring of 1997 the Tribune and Sun-Times reported that 47,000 students had flunked the Iowas and would have to attend summer school. The 47,000 number was repeated by both papers during the summer and into the fall. But in mid-September Education Week reported that, according to the board, only 41,000 students had actually enrolled in summer school and only 32,000 had retaken the Iowas at the end of the summer. “Officials said they were not sure how to account for the 9,000-student discrepancy,” said Education Week. “They suggested that the missing students may have played hooky from summer school, skipped the retests, or dropped out altogether.”

A few weeks later, USA Weekend came out with yet another number. “Last spring, in the four grades where test scores are required for promotion, 38,689 (28 percent) didn’t make it,” the magazine reported. “After intense summer classes in their weak subjects, 16,828 of those scored high enough to move to the next grade.”

A June 4, 1998, Tribune article said that “11,441 of 27,319” third graders had flunked the Iowas that spring. An August 22 Tribune article said that “of all 37,421 3rd graders, 27,511 met promotion standards last spring.”

“Who knows what it means,” says Woestehoff. “There are too many inconsistencies to spot real trends. It’s a shadow system in which the administration controls the flow of information. They’re ultimately unaccountable to anyone but themselves.”

At its press conference, PURE charged that black and Hispanic students were being retained in greater proportions than white. There was testimony from several parents, including Michael Hollis, who had to appeal to the board so his third-grade son would not be retained, and Leonardo Chavez, who says low scores kept his ninth-grade daughter from advancing with her class even though she was an award-winning student poet. (She would be promoted after scoring higher on a retest.)

Edmond told about her son’s struggles: “I don’t think the test should decide whether my child is promoted. If his whole performance is based on a test, why go to school at all? He should just sit at home and prepare for that test. My boy’s a very creative child. He loves to write and to read. But this has turned him off against reading and school. They talk about the humiliation of social promotion, but what about the humiliation of this? They’re just tearing these children down.”

Vallas shows no sign of retreat. He gave reporters charts showing that the scores of black and Hispanic students were steadily climbing. “With the elimination of social promotion, we stopped the practice of moving students to the next grade who are not academically prepared,” Vallas said in his statement. “What would be discriminatory is promoting children who are only prepared for failure at the next grade level.”

Vallas went on to say that “math scores have nearly doubled, and reading scores are up 50 percent since 1995.”

Reporters seeking more specific numbers were directed to the board’s press office.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.