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With assessment tests, the stakes are high for testers and testees

Education 2000: Reforming Schools for a New Century

Sunday, August 27, 2000

By Rachel Smolkin, Post-Gazette National Bureau

Armed only with No. 2 pencils and fact-soaked brains, students plot their futures -- and those of their schools -- as they struggle to answer standardized test questions about the clash of church and state in the Byzantine Empire, the cause of the Panic of 1819 and the range of a function given an algebraic domain.

These are sample questions in a new breed of exams -- the so-called "high-stakes tests" that are being used more and more in states across the country in an effort to prove that teachers are teaching and students are learning.

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Pennsylvania's tests growing teeth


And if they're not, there are consequences.

While the full consequences of these high-stakes tests won't be known for some years, in most states they now determine whether a student advances to the next grade or graduates from high school; whether a teacher or principal keeps a job or merits bonus pay; whether a school is praised or punished by a state takeover.

As deadlines for imposing penalties get closer, several state education officials already are considering changes because they're concerned that students will be punished for the failings of their schools or the improper use of tests.

Maryland education officials have delayed a requirement that high school students pass statewide tests for graduation.

Virginia has increased the flexibility of its graduation requirement, approving a list of national and international tests that students may take as an alternative to the state tests.

Ohio is considering changing its reading test score that will be used to promote or retain fourth-graders.

Mary Fulton, policy analyst at the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States, traces dramatic changes in education to the birth of the standards movement. In the early 1990s, states began to set standards -- what students need to know in which grade levels -- in English, math, science and social studies.

    More in the series Education 2000

Monday: Education experts say smaller schools, not just smaller classes, are better for students and teachers.


"Even the introduction of standards is a huge step, and we're still catching our breath with that one," Fulton said. "And then come these new tests that are supposed to measure the standards."

Before teachers and students can even absorb those changes, she said: "On top of that comes accountability .... We're doing this quickly, probably with good intentions, but we have a lot to learn."

Defenders of high-stakes tests -- a group that includes some politicians, business leaders and some education reformers -- say the tests require students to demonstrate a mastery of material needed for an increasingly demanding workplace.

Other industrialized nations have a long tradition of tough testing, and many lawmakers argue the United States needs a comparable approach to stay competitive.

Supporters insist such testing is the only objective path to higher standards and stricter accountability. Grades may be inflated, and those popular student "portfolios" that showcase essays and other work are too subjective, they say. Standardized tests, on the other hand, hold all students to the same rigorous standards regardless of race or socioeconomic background.

And test results also can highlight discrepancies in education systems, they add.

"We've discovered several problems," said Ron Peiffer, assistant state superintendent in Maryland. His state's test has earned praise for emphasizing open-ended responses and critical thinking instead of multiple choice and what some call "knowledge regurgitation."

"We're not doing a good job teaching reading," Peiffer said. "The middle schools aren't quite what they ought to be. There's a continuing gap between white, African-American and Hispanic students. It's becoming increasingly clear that we've got work to do in these areas."

In May, the Maryland board of education voted to delay a requirement that high school students pass a state test for graduation because of concerns that the state didn't have enough money for programs to help students pass the tests. That in turn could mean high failure rates.

While the tests do have vocal supporters, the chorus of parents and educators worried about test-induced anxiety and decreased creativity is getting louder.

The American Educational Research Association, a professional organization that studies education, concluded in a July report that high-stakes tests can commit "serious harm" if administered where funding is inadequate or if they're used for purposes unintended by the tests' creators. The association declared that decisions affecting a student's future should not be made on test scores alone.

"Policy makers and the public may be misled by spurious test score increases unrelated to any fundamental educational improvement; students may be placed at increased risk of educational failure and dropping out; teachers may be blamed or punished for inequitable resources over which they have no control; and curriculum and instruction may be severely distorted if high tests scores per se, rather than learning, become the overriding goal of classroom instruction," the report said.

A series of studies commissioned by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that high-stakes tests attached to promotion and graduation led to increased dropout rates, particularly among minority students. The studies also found that using tests to make students repeat a grade is a practice that doesn't have lasting educational benefits.

Critics charge that high-pressure tests encourage "drill and kill" classroom teaching that emphasizes rote memorization rather than creativity and problem-solving. They say the state-mandated exams compel teachers to ignore valuable subjects that aren't tested, including fine arts and physical education.

But the emphasis on drills has been a boon, at least, for the testing industry.

Kaplan, a company known for its SAT prep courses, sells books to help students and parents prepare for standardized tests in Florida, New York, Texas and Massachusetts. Kaplan also has contracted with schools in several cities, including New York and Los Angeles, to provide materials that teach test-taking strategies.

A Kaplan subsidiary called SCORE! Learning has more than 100 centers nationwide that charge parents of students in kindergarten through 10th grade to hone academic skills.

Anna Roppo, of Westchester, N.Y, enrolled her son Massimo, 10, in a SCORE class to help him prepare for the state English and math tests.

"He's a little more confident. He has a little more self-esteem," she said. Roppo pays $99 a month for his computer class and $299 for personal training. "It can only help him when it's constantly reinforced," she said.

Massimo sees value in the state tests, which "prepare us and make us smarter for the next grade or higher level. I got to show what I know." He even described the test as fun. "They had a lot of good questions and funny ones."

But critics say tests are draining the fun from school. Some schools and districts have limited or eliminated recess in the early grades to devote more time to academics. The Virginia Board of Education's July testing changes included a requirement that elementary schools offer a daily break from academics.

"There has to be some standardization," said Amanda Jasper, whose 11-year-old daughter, Emma, has completed two years of Virginia's tests. "But I think that's one of the joys of teaching ... that you can teach in your own way. Children learn in different ways from different teachers."

Jasper said Emma's fourth-grade social studies class focused on topics that would be tested. "They're 9- and 10-year-old children. And almost by rote, they'd have to learn names, facts and figures," said Jasper, who lives in northern Virginia. "I'd be very interested to know how much they all remember a year later."

Some parents and teachers worry that the high-stakes environment may be creating hard-to-handle anxiety for children frightened that their lives will be ruined if they don't do well on tests.

"There are kids [who] are getting sick and throwing up," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "It's a stifling atmosphere. It's creating fear that will ultimately end up being totally counterproductive to what we want to ultimately achieve, which is better learning."

Highly publicized incidents of inaccurate scoring and outright cheating haven't helped the tests' public standing. In September, testing company CTB/McGraw Hill told officials in several states and New York City that tests might have been scored incorrectly. In New York City, more than 8,600 students mistakenly were placed in summer school because of "low" test scores.

Allegations of cheating have erupted in Ohio, New York, Texas and Maryland. The superintendent for Montgomery County, Md., in June recommended stripping a former elementary school principal of her teaching certificate, which essentially bans her from working in most public schools, after revelations that she coached students to cheat.

Critics say the line between teaching to the test and cheating is blurred at best. Mitch Balonek, a high school English teacher in Toledo, Ohio, was absent because of illness when he was supposed to administer the state test in October. If he had been there, "I'm afraid I might have been tempted to help them," he said.

"I think it's cheating when we cheat kids out of the diplomas that they worked very hard for, particularly in the inner city, where 50 to 60 percent of the kids drop out."

Balonek said he probably would have helped students if they had difficulty understanding questions. He wasn't sure whether he would supply answers.

"I don't know," he said. "I might be tempted. I'm just so frustrated and feel these tests are so unfair. ... I don't want to see an honors student not graduate from high school because of a few points on a stupid test that has no value whatsoever."

Balonek has refused to let his daughter, Adrianne, 14, take the state high school graduation exam.

But Amy Wilkins, a policy analyst at The Education Trust, a nonprofit group based in Washington, said tests results demonstrate whether students understand their material and should determine whether children advance.

"How fair is it for high schools to hand kids a diploma and say you're ready to go, and then the kid gets out in the real world and finds he or she doesn't have the skills he needs to succeed in college or in a job?" she asked.

"These anti-testing people are missing the point -- that every kid must be able to achieve at high levels in an increasingly complex and competitive world."

Parent and student protests are brewing. In Massachusetts, several hundred students boycotted the state tests in April, staging walkouts or marching to city hall and chanting, "Be a hero, take a zero!"

Dan Elitzer, 16, and about 40 of his peers at Monument Mountain Regional High School in southern Massachusetts refused to take the high school graduation exam, opting instead to create portfolios of their work and spend test time developing research projects.

His decision will not affect his status because the test, given in 10th grade, will not be used to determine graduation until 2003. Students then must pass the English and math sections, although sophomores who fail may try again as juniors and seniors. State education officials later plan to extend graduation requirements to include passage of the science and social studies sections.

"All our learning from elementary school to high school is based on one particular test," Elitzer said, scoffing at a sample question about the Byzantine Empire. "What's more important than knowing that particular fact is knowing how to use an encyclopedia to look up those facts."

A May survey of 800 registered voters conducted for the school administrators' association found 63 percent of American voters do not agree that a student's progress for an entire school year may accurately be measured by a single test.

Voters were split almost evenly when asked whether they agree that students who fail to achieve a passing score on a statewide standardized test should be kept back a grade: 49 percent disagreed, 45 percent agreed and 6 percent said they didn't know.

As decisions by governors and lawmakers begin to penetrate the classroom, parents, educators and students are taking notice. The time when these tests will determine the futures of most students is fast approaching, and many are carefully monitoring the successes and failures such well-intentioned reforms may bring.

Wilkins, of The Education Trust, said, "What the standards movement is about is ensuring the kids develop firm mastery of material before they move on to the next set of material. The tests, while not perfect, are probably the best way to do that."

But Elitzer disagreed and said: "Even if you have a third of the kids in the state failing, you're going to have a lot of people very upset very quickly. They're moving too fast. I don't think they should do it at all. But they're definitely going about it in the wrong way."

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