The Dixon (Ill.) Education Association authorized a teachers’ strike against Unit District 170 that began on Feb. 28, and Tuesday marked the ninth day the district’s 2,767 students have been out of class in this north-central Illinois town right on the Rock River equidistant from Rockford and Clinton, Iowa.
Although the strike is currently the longest teachers’ strike in Illinois this school year, a bigger problem is that students aren’t in school during the only time of year when the Illinois Standard Achievement Tests (ISATs) can be given. These tests are part of federal and state law and are used for school and district accountability purposes under No Child Left Behind. In the future, under a new Illinois law, tests like the ISATs will be used for teacher evaluations.
For security reasons and to allow for reasonable production schedules on the part of the state and its testing vendors, the Illinois State Board of Education creates “testing windows” during which students may take the tests. The idea is that students in every school should take the tests after about the same amount of instruction in that year in order to allow school-to-school comparisons of the scores. Plus, ISBE has to report the results back to the schools by a certain date, and without data from all schools in the state, they wouldn’t be able to compute statewide averages, such as those shown on the Illinois school report cards.
For this year’s ISAT, the “normal” testing window is two weeks long and runs from March 4 through March 15. In other words, if a district is using the normal testing window, its schools have the 10 school days from March 4 through March 15 to administer all the tests required for students in each grade. One “early” and one “late” testing window are also provided by the ISBE for special circumstances, such as when a school schedules its spring break during the normal testing window.
Schools in Dixon were originally scheduled to take the ISATs during the normal testing window, but as soon as the strike happened, the district asked for and received permission from the ISBE to use the late testing window, which runs from March 11 through March 22.
The tests themselves are given to students in third through eighth grades for reading and math and in fourth and seventh grades for science. Each test is divided into “sessions,” which last 45 minutes each, although 10 minutes of extra time can be given if students are still working at the end of the 45 minutes. The math and reading tests in each grade have three sessions, and the science tests have two sessions.
Normally, districts can’t have students sit for more than two test sessions on any given testing day. The ISAT 2013 Test Administration Manual says on page 9:
Students are to take no more than two test sessions on any one day of regularly scheduled testing. Within reason, more tests may be given in one day for makeups, but administer no more than two test sessions in any one morning or afternoon.
Given those and a few other minimum requirements from ISBE, schools set their own testing schedules. An ISAT schedule for a middle school’s seventh-graders might look something like this:
- March 5: Reading session 1 in the morning, Math session 1 in the afternoon
- March 6: Reading session 2 in the morning, Math session 2 in the afternoon
- March 7: Reading session 3 in the morning, Math session 3 in the afternoon
- March 12 (the following week): Science session 1 in the morning
- March 13: Science session 2 in the morning
What the one middle and two of three elementary schools in Dixon will do once kids get back into class depends on exactly when that happens. As stated in the manual, students taking makeups, which are usually reserved for the few students who were sick on one of the regular testing days, can sit for a maximum of four test sessions in any given day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon.
There are no provisions in the manual for teachers’ strikes per se, but the ISBE has granted District 170 permission to have kids sit for a maximum of four sessions a day, just as if they were taking the tests as makeups.
“I was in contact with the Assessment Division of ISBE once we knew that the strike was probably going to go into the late testing window,” said Margo Empen, the district’s assistant superintendent and assessment coordinator. “They allowed us the accommodation of taking more than two sessions per day, but no more than four sessions in one day, if school resumes and there’s time for testing.”
Fourth- and seventh-graders have to complete eight sessions, while third-, fifth-, sixth-, and eighth-graders have to complete six. If four test sessions are allowed per day, either six or eight test sessions could theoretically be completed in two school days, if necessary. Such a schedule would result in wall-to-wall testing for 9-year-old third-graders, though.
Furthermore, welcoming students back to school after a teachers’ strike longer than their spring break will require some time for students to ramp up their brains before taking the tests.
“Our plan for testing, should school resume before March 22, would be to get students back in school for a day or two to reacclimate them before testing would begin,” Ms Empen said. “We want students to be focused, so we would not start testing on the first day back.”
The ISBE has indicated it cannot grant an extension beyond the March 22 date, since it has schedules to keep as well. A failure to complete the testing would likely bring more than financial consequences to the district, although the financial penalties have already begun accumulating.
According to a press release posted on the district’s website Sunday, the district plans to “continue to work with ISBE to explore other options to maintain our District’s recognition status, allow our students to complete ISAT testing, and to protect our ability to secure the state funding that has been jeopardized by this strike.”
What those “options” might be is unclear. The manual cited above specifically disallows any person not directly employed by the school in a certified position to be a test administrator, although “student teachers” may serve as test proctors and assist the official test administrator. It’s possible there are enough principals and superintendents in District 170 to administer the tests, provided they have a healthy supply of student teachers or regular teachers, counselors, etc., who are willing to cross picket lines. Of course, it would be easier to end the walkout.