VALLAS FACTS: Paul Vallas failed to improve test scores, but doubletalked on the issue

[Editor's Note: The following article first appeared in Substance in March 2002, and was published on line in the first issue of Substance to go up at the Web on the "old" Substance Website ( It is reprinted here because of its renewed relevance following the Connecticut court decision ruling that Paul Vallas is not qualified under Connecticut law to head the Bridgeport school system. George N. Schmidt, editor].

Vallas failed to raise Chicago test scores on the test most Illinois students take By Sharon Schmidt

Paul Vallas was never able to raise Chicago students’ scores on the ISAT Tests, the tests that public school students take statewide. When he claims to have raised Chicago test scores “six years in a row,“ he is speaking about the scores on Iowa and TAP Tests (the tests that Chicago chooses to give). As explained below, his techniques for raising the Iowa and TAP scores have been condemned by dozens of test experts from across the country.

Vallas Never Raised Chicago Scores on the Statewide ISAT Tests

Chicago’s students take two sets of tests every year:

The Iowa and TAP Tests are administered by the Chicago Public Schools. Chicago school officials set the ground rules for Iowa and TAP testing.

The ISAT Tests (the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests) are administered statewide by the Illinois State Board of Education. Nearly every public school student in the state must take the ISAT Tests. They reflect state standards for what students should know and be able to do in third grade reading, for example. And the questions change every year, so Chicago school officials do not know in advance what questions will be on this year’s ISAT Tests.

If Paul Vallas becomes the “education governor” of Illinois, he will have to raise the ISAT Test scores. The most important point to remember about Vallas’ Chicago record is that he never succeeded in raising the Chicago’s ISAT scores, for all the focus he put on test preparation (see Chart) Here is the chronology:

February 1999. Chicago students took the ISAT for the first time. The score were reported in November, and they were very low, compared with the statewide average (see Chart). Vallas said that Chicago students were going to do better when they become used to the format of the new test.

January-February 2000. As the second ISAT testing approached, Vallas made a major political issue about the month when the ISAT Test was going to be given. He claimed that testing students in February was "unfair," even though state achievement tests have been given in this same time period for a decade. Vallas used the early testing issue to excuse a second year of dismal Chicago performance when the ISAT scores were released in November. Wait ‘til next year, he said, when the ISAT Tests will be given in April.

April 2001. Students statewide took the ISAT for the third time. The results were released in November 2001, and they remained low and completely flat, compared with previous years. The Chicago average was far below the state average and far below minimum state standards. As a result, 492 Chicago schools were placed on the state’s Academic Watch List. However, by the time the scores were released, Vallas was no longer head of the school system, but off running for governor. The press didn’t ask him why the change in the month that the ISAT was given, along with his incessant focus on test preparation, had not paid off in higher ISAT scores.

Iowa and TAP Test Gains Reflect Unethical Gimmicks

When Vallas took office, he shrewdly made raising the Iowa Tests in elementary school and the TAP Tests in high school the obsessive focus for every public school student, parent, teacher, and principal. He did this in the name of “ending social promotion,” another politically popular slogan. Raising the Iowa Tests and TAP Test score results became the only game in town in the Chicago Public Schools.

To raise these scores, Vallas:

Encouraged constant test-drilling during the regular school day and after school.

Made a student’s spring Iowa Test score the basis for promotion to the next grade at grades three, six, and eight.

Sent low-scoring students to summer school for another dose of test drilling and, once again, based promoting or flunking students primarily on a particular minimum score on the Iowa Test.

Put schools with low Iowa and TAP Test scores on probation and intensified test preparation in these schools.

Put heavy emphasis on Iowa and TAP test gains in evaluating principals.

Repeatedly used the same three sets of Iowa and TAP Tests over and over. (Each form had the same identical test items at a particular grade level.) This practice allowed teachers repeated chances to become familiar with the exact questions that their students would have to answer on a particular test (like Form L for fifth grade reading). Vallas used Form L of the test seven times after he took office.

Test experts regularly condemned Vallas’ methods. A panel of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that Chicago’s test gains on the Iowa Test were not valid, because the Chicago curriculum put such a strong emphasis on preparing for this particular test. They pointed out that gains on one test for which students are drilled intensively don’t typically translate into gains on a similar test (which is exactly what happened with the ISAT).

Another national group of nine test experts said in spring 2001 that Chicago’s Iowa Test was a “broken thermometer,” because the same test questions were used over and over.

But Vallas learned that the opinions of such experts attracted limited media attention, as long as he could hold up a chart that showed a line going up, and say that he was “ending social promotion.”

Collateral Damage to Children

While politically popular, Vallas’ policies have done enormous harm to Chicago’s most neglected students and schools. For example:

-- Ruining Students’ Lives. While flunking students with low test scores sounds like common sense, research has consistently shown that retained students don’t score higher as a result of retention and are more likely to drop out later on. The best research-based alternative is not social promotion or retention, but promotion with intensive high quality instruction.

Dr. Melissa Roderick of University of Chicago has studied Chicago’s flunking program and has been reluctant to criticize it. But in a candid comment she told the American School Board Journal: “The effect of retention on these kids seems to be very decimating,” Roderick says, explaining that children who are sent back to repeat a grade have a much higher dropout rate than children who progress with their classmates. “This is just a disaster, to be quite honest,” she says. “And it’s just the beginning of a disaster, because now we’re seeing all of these first- and second-graders who are being retained.” Contrary to what many teachers and parents think, Roderick says, “no research says that early-grade retention is good for kids.”

-- Junior High Dropouts. Research indicates that several thousand additional Chicago students are now dropping out in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade each year, because they cannot pass the tests to get into high school. Chicago has no jobs and no future for these children.

-- Good Teachers Exit Sanctioned Schools. Research about schools that have been “taken over” by the central administration indicates that the best teachers leave, unwilling to put up with the pressure to drill their students for tests, instead of teach.

Ironically, recent research in Chicago schools shows that the inner city schools where students do better on both the Iowa and ISAT are teaching a challenging educational program, rather that drilling students for tests.

But what’s harmful for children has been very good for Paul Vallas.


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