ANCHORAGE - Jonathan Ward knows more about caribou than most seventh graders.
The Steller Secondary School student formulated a research question about how the animals react to people, interviewed experts, and read publications to find the answer. He typed up his results in a research paper, and to teach other students, he's completing a board game that will be part of a presentation to peers and parents.
Science teacher Doug Teter figures Jonathan has demonstrated ably his learning, but in a couple of years, that won't be good enough.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, Alaska students will be tested annually in math, reading and science. Schools that have too few passing students will face an escalating set of penalties.
According to some Alaska educators, the testing requirement will take away valuable classroom time, diminish local control of schools, and when pressure builds to avoid the "failing" label, push aside the most effective teaching methods in favor of coaching to pass the test.
"When everything is tied to a test score, it's not a real base on what your students actually know," or what they should know, Teter said.
No Child Left Behind, strongly pushed by President George W. Bush, has noble intentions. As the name implies, it aims to leave out no subgroup of American students from the chance to learn. All groups most show annual progress or a school will be judged a failure.
"It's about closing that achievement gap between advantaged students and disadvantaged students," said Harry Gamble, spokesman for the state Department of Education and Early Development, which has been pouring hours and manpower into planning for the new federal law.
A key to the law is accountability - telling parents whether their child's school is doing a good job. In Alaska, that judgment will be based on performance on standardized tests and by how many students graduate from high school - which in Alaska also will be based on a standardized test, the high school exit exam.
Beginning in 2005-06, states must test all students annually in grades three to eight in math and reading or language arts. Science assessments must be developed and put into place by the 2007-08 school year.
Basing penalties on such "high-stakes testing" will change how students are taught, said the president of NEA-Alaska, the union representing most public school teachers.
"There's an old adage in education: What gets tested is what gets taught," said Rich Kronberg.
His objections begin with the narrow focus of the tests' content: math, reading, and later, science.
With money and reputations at stake, it's inevitable that administrators and teachers will feel pressured to teach what's on the test and the best way to pass it.
"If that's what we're doing instead of going to art classes or music classes or even history or geography, that's a bad thing," he said.
He's seen it before. When he started teaching 30 years ago in the South Bronx, Kronberg said, teachers got old copies of standardized tests, or made up their own, to coach students. He expects that Alaska schools labeled as failing will pull resources from other classes to make a better showing.
"If it's the right test, there's nothing wrong with teaching to the test," said Gamble of the Department of Education.
But even CTB/McGraw Hill, the company that will provide Alaska versions of standardized tests, warns of misusing test-related instructional materials.
The company encourages short practice tests to identify students who need help with the mechanics of test-taking. But it warns against targeted instruction that focuses on the specific content of a test. Doing so will make instruction more narrow than appropriate and likely show test scores that are artificially high.
The company also warns that coaching right before a standardized test, and using materials that resemble that test, can increase test scores without bringing about any real and lasting increase in the skills being measured.
Kronberg said test preparation likely will be in the form of rote-learning, memorization and the teaching of test-taking skills - a skill of dubious value once children leave school.
Kronberg has little faith that tests with multiple choice and short-answer tests adequately reflect depth of knowledge that many of Alaska's best teachers believe will be necessary to function in the 21st Century.
Les Morse, principal of Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School in Juneau, said the best curricula poses open-ended questions that cause students to struggle and think of solutions.
He contrasts that with the rote-learning he experienced as a student: a teacher at the head of the class dispersing facts from a textbook, homework in the form of work sheets, an emphasis on memorization. It's an easier way to teach, an easier way to grade, and easier to test, but not as good for the students.
"We have to have them do more complex tasks," Morse said.
The difference is apparent in Teter's exploratory science class. Rather than lectures and a textbook on what makes up the scientific method, or presentations on volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, Teter's students chose their own topics, researched them and showed the breadth of their knowledge in papers and a creative presentation of their choice.
"It's a way to organize information and demonstrate what they're learned," Teter said, and it's far more effective and stimulating to students than studying for a test.
No Child Left Behind views students as receptacles he's required to fill with a universal set of facts, Teter said.
"You just put it in their heads. They take this test. If they're successful, they're going to be successful people outside of the school system," he said.
In his class, students learn from each other, from interviews with community members, from research they perform, and from visits they made to observe others with similar interests.
"They're going to become real thinkers," he said of his students. "School isn't just for giving people information."
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