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TV Review: Studying the stakes in president's school testing plan

Sunday, March 24, 2002

By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer

With President George Bush's renewed emphasis on "accountability," statewide tests taken in schools across the country are quickly becoming the ticket for students to move up to the next grade level, or even to graduate. Hence, the term "high-stakes tests."

But PBS's "Testing Our Schools" (9 p.m. Thursday, WQED/WQEX) makes it clear that the stakes often have little to do with students and learning.

"Frontline: Testing Our Schools"

When: 9 p.m. Thursday on WQED/WQEX.

Reported by: John Merrow.


PBS deserves credit for tackling the school testing issue, a rather dry topic that doesn't lend itself to flashy video or compelling music. But stick with "Testing" and you'll learn something important about the future of your students, teachers and schools.

In Pennsylvania and some other states, money is riding on those test scores, in the form of "rewards" given to schools that improve their test performance. The jobs of teachers and principals and even superintendents can be at stake, especially in Virginia and other nonunion states where employees have fewer protections.

The program, a joint project of "Frontline" and PBS education correspondent John Merrow's "The Merrow Report," begins at a suburban Richmond school district in Henrico County, Va.

Students there are preparing for the state's "Standards of Learning" tests, similar to Pennsylvania's PSSA tests but with more clout. If they don't pass the tests, they don't graduate.

It's not just the kids who are nervous. This statement by Henrico County School Superintendent Mark Edwards indicates why teachers and administrators also are gnawing on their pencils: "You hire people and you give them the support and you say this is the job that needs to be done. But if the job isn't done after a period of time, you say, well, we've got to find someone else who can get that job done."

The teachers spend so much time preparing for the tests, you might begin to wonder when they actually teach. Students get 10-minute "speed tests" at the beginning of the day. There are pep rallies in the gym, spirit circles in the classroom.

"What we try to do in first grade is give them all types of assessments so whatever they get on a test is not going to freeze them up," explains one teacher.

Though the program focuses on Virginia and its relatively new high-stakes test -- commonly known by its unfortunate acronym, SOL -- Merrow makes it clear every state will be affected by rampant testing under President Bush's new federal education program.

Merrow details the history of the testing movement, which gained momentum primarily because business leaders were unhappy with the skills of recent high school graduates.

CEO Louis V. Gerstner of IBM tells a summit of the nation's governors: "We never will know whether anything works in public education until we establish a system that says, here's what children should learn ..."

But who writes the test? What should the test test? How should it be scored? And how much should those scores mean?

Ted Sizer, a well-known education reformer, is concerned about tunnel vision, encroaching politics and political correctness.

"Do you want a small group of people deciding the ideas that go into your child's head? ... There's an arrogance to this that has been costly," he says.

The film's highlight -- and remember, this is not "Moulin Rouge" -- is a rare look into a committee meeting where a group of teacher/consultants are helping the SOL curriculum writers decide what should be taught and tested.

Among the more tense arguments is whether to include the study of the Armenian genocide -- a local activist has been pushing for the topic to be added to the SOL. And a black teacher is lobbying for inclusion of the ancient kingdom of Mali so that children will know that black people had a history before slavery.

Because of such power struggles -- along with flawed questions and scoring screw-ups, which the film details -- even the co-author of the widely used Iowa Test of Basic Achievement believes people read too much into the test scores.

"I want to know whether or not a student asks questions, whether they're part of a conversation," she said. "Caring about learning -- I can't measure that with a test."

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