Concern surrounds standardized tests

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2000

Kuspuk schools Superintendent Bobette Bush was puzzled when the state categorized one of her schools as in crisis, although it usually had good standardized test scores. It turned out the rating was based one kid's test score in a school of 18 children.

That was just a trial run two years ago of an idea that is heading toward reality in fall 2002, as the state develops criteria to designate public schools by their quality.

Part of the state's drive toward standards and accountability is to annually designate each school as distinguished, successful, deficient or in crisis.

``I don't think they'll be useful because I don't think they'll be accurate at all in determining the academic success of the school,'' said Bush, who oversees 11 schools in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

The state needs to identify schools that have trouble helping students meet new performance standards, and then do something about it, said Harry Gamble, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

The law requires schools labeled deficient or in crisis to develop a state-monitored improvement plan. If the school does poorly two years in a row, the state can take steps - currently undefined - to help a school improve its performance.

Some parents like the designations.

``I want to know that my child that goes to this elementary school is getting the same quality education as in the school across town. And that's not always the case,'' said Viletta Knight, president of the Fairbanks PTA Council.

A committee of educators, parents and business people will recommend designator criteria to the state Board of Education. The committee met in Anchorage last week in its second get-together.

The committee believes designations should compare similarly sized schools, said Knight, who represents the Alaska Parent Teacher Association on the panel. It also wants schools to be judged on their growth in student achievement, she said.

The criteria is likely to include the state's new benchmark tests and high school exit exams, committee members said in interviews. The law requires multiple performance measures, and they could include results from national tests, and graduation and dropout rates, said Deputy Education Commissioner Bruce Johnson.

Judging students and schools by test scores alone bothers some educators.

``We educate the whole child, especially at the elementary level,'' said Bernie Sorenson, principal of Glacier Valley Elementary in Juneau.

The quality of a school includes teachers who collaborate, healthy breakfasts and free lunches, a safe and disciplined environment, and parental involvement, she said.

``What I see coming down the pike is teaching to a test versus teaching for high intellectual standards,'' she said.

John Cyr, president of the National Education Association-Alaska, a teachers' union, is concerned the state won't look at children's social and economic backgrounds, or at different learning rates and styles.

Schools designated low may be demoralized and find it hard to hire and keep teachers, Cyr added. Without significant money for remedial programs, he said, the designations won't do any good.

The committee is concerned about the law's effects on small schools, especially in predominantly Native villages. Some members think the designations could be seen as labeling local people as failures.

The effect on morale ``will just be absolutely atrocious,'' said superintendent Bush. ``I don't see anything positive coming out of that.''

California, which has a large Spanish-speaking population and many immigrants, faced similar dissension when it decided to use student test scores in its school-ranking program, said Pat McCabe of the California Department of Education.

The problem is, he said, ``if you don't include this group of people in the accountability system, you tend to ignore them.''

Then there's money. Some states that rate schools, such as California, spend money on troubled schools and even give cash bonuses to teachers in schools that improve.

``The (Alaska) Department of Education isn't really in the position to do that with the funding and the amount of staff they have,'' said Mari-Anne Gross, a committee member and a longtime Kenai Peninsula school board member.

Alaska now spends $16 a student to implement standards.

About half of Alaska's schools are small. Sixteen dollars per student isn't much of a resource for a school with 100 students, said deputy commissioner Johnson.

``There needs to be more than that for those schools identified as challenged,'' he said.

Committee member Richard Mauer, who directs educational services at two military bases near Fairbanks, thinks the ratings will be good for the state if they're fair.

But he's concerned about how adults will react to test scores and school designations. Mauer said he saw property values go down in North Carolina communities that had poor school scores. The first thing people ask when they're thinking of moving to a community is how are the schools, he said.

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