CPS board, watchdog spar over report that found ‘irregularities’ in test results

The board and the IG debated whether it was appropriate for him to raise the possibility of “cheating” when he didn’t find provable instances of wrongdoing.

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Chicago Public Schools Inspector General Nicholas Schuler. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools Inspector General Nicholas Schuler.

James Foster/ For the Sun-Times

Days after Chicago Public Schools officials agreed to overhaul their standardized testing procedures, Board of Education members grilled the inspector general whose report led to the changes in a heated, nearly two-hour argument over his findings.

Nearly every one of the board’s seven members peppered CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler with questions about his office’s investigation that found “unusual patterns” and “irregularities” in some test results. He told board members they would be “naive” to think his findings didn’t include attempts to game testing procedures.

Wednesday’s exchange, which featured each side talking over the other, put into public view months’ worth of tension between Schuler and CPS over the testing issue. The discussion was also a lively send-off for Schuler, who’s set to leave the job at the end of the week after he was forced into a resignation last month.

Schuler’s investigation focused on CPS’ highest-stakes test — the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) — which is used to evaluate teachers and principals, screen for selective enrollment admissions and determine each school’s rating. The test, many including board members have argued, was never intended or designed to be used for such major decisions.

But the core of the debate between Schuler’s office and CPS is whether using the word “cheating” was appropriate in a report that didn’t necessarily substantiate any concrete examples of wrongdoing.

The report did find problems in the system — ones that allowed testing procedures to be “repeatedly violated” — that could be exploited for a student’s advantage.

In the 68-page report, the IG’s data analysis unit described “a concerning level of unusually long test durations, high pause counts and other irregularities” during the spring 2018 testing period. CPS students on average took twice as long as the national average to complete the un-timed test, designed to last about an hour. In some cases, students took several hours or even multiple days to finish the test, while some students told investigators they waited out difficult questions until new questions would pop up. That could have given them an unfair advantage over other CPS students applying to selective enrollment schools, for example, the report found.

One of the IG’s recommendations was that teachers, whose own performance ratings partially depend on the results of the NWEA, shouldn’t be the sole proctors of the tests.

CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade, who presented CPS’ response to the report, said the district hadn’t wanted to take teachers off proctoring in the past because students, especially younger ones, might be uncomfortable taking a test with an unfamiliar adult. Going forward, CPS will put another adult in the room if a teacher is proctoring.

The district and board have argued that, while they appreciate and will implement all of the IG’s recommendations, more harm than good was done by publicly raising the specter of cheating without concrete examples. The district has been especially concerned that the report could, intentionally or not, discount student growth over the past few years.

“If you can’t [prove it], don’t make those assertions,” said board member Lucino Sotelo. “Because now you are taking away the credit of all the hard work of all the teachers, first of all, because the teachers deserve most of the credit, and the students who actually delivered upon that.”

Schuler offered pointed rebukes to the board’s concerns about his report.

“I think it would basically be naive to not mention the possibility of cheating or gaming,” Schuler said. “I think we’ve been pretty fair that it’s in the mix, we can’t quantify it. ... I think what we reported is very measured.”

He added: “Even if it’s benign, and I would say it’s naive to say every last case would be benign, but even if that were the case, you’d still — based on the new guidance regarding durations, especially — the board, CPS, would be facing real questions about the test going forward.”

Those new guidelines — which call for durations not to fall outside national norms, and for monitoring of durations and pauses — were put in place by NWEA officials after Schuler’s report was released last week.

Board president del Valle, who oversaw the investigation into Schuler’s conduct that led to his resignation, started the meeting with gratitude for the work the inspector general has done over the years.

“Nick, thank you for your years of service to the Chicago Public Schools and the City of Chicago,” del Valle said. “Under your tenure, and the expansion of your role in the last few years, you and your staff have had a significant positive effect on CPS operations.”

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