Disagreeing on how to keep score

Educators, parents, experts debate pros and cons of school standardized tests

Posted: Sunday, November 05, 2000

Juneau School District standardized tests

Kindergarten: Kindergarten profile, District math.

First grade: Benchmark books assessment, Reading Recovery Test Battery (for referred students), Reading and writing continuums, District math.

Second grade: District writing, Benchmark books assessment, Reading and writing continuums, District math.

Third grade: State benchmark (reading, writing and math), District math, Reading assessment determined by school, Reading and writing continuums, Degrees of reading power (given in either third or fourth grade).

Fourth grade: California Achievement Test (reading, language arts and math), District writing, Reading and writing continuums, Reading assessment determined by school, District math.

Fifth grade: District writing, District math, Reading and writing continuums, Reading assessment determined by school.

Sixth grade: State benchmark, Reading assessment chosen by school.

Seventh-grade: California Achievement Test, District writing, District math, Reading assessment chosen by school.

Eighth-grade: State benchmark, Reading assessment chosen by school, Rites of Passage Experiences (for selected students).

Ninth-grade: California Achievement Test, District writing, District math.

Tenth-grade: State high school graduation exam (portions not passed may be taken again two times each in the 11th and 12th grades and for three years after leaving high school).

Future tests: District math and language arts core grades six-12 are in development.

Figure out what you want kids to know, teach it to them, test them to see if they know it and help those who don't.

That's what the standards movement says schools should do, but there's nothing simple or uncontroversial about it. Consider testing. Should we give standardized tests, and how should we use them? What do the results mean? Do the tests lead to improvements?

"I think that it actually helps you and I think it's a good thing you have to take it," said Juneau-Douglas High School junior Leslie Lozada of the new high school graduation exam. "It just puts you in the mind that you have to pass the test."

JDHS English teacher Bill Chalmers, now in his 39th year of teaching, is concerned the test will diagnose for what educators decided long ago is detrimental to teaching good writing, such as learning grammar apart from writing.

"We're living in the world when the amount of knowledge is exponentially growing, but tests ask us to focus on small segments of knowledge," he said.

Juneau students have been tested for decades. But the new state benchmark exams and a high-stakes high school exit exam have focused everyone's attention on standardized tests.

"It's not necessarily educationally sound to focus on the numbers," said Diana Gifford, principal at Mendenhall River Community School. "But it has caused us to step back and look at what we're doing and see if it works. It's a good time to get off a dead horse in some cases."

State legislators, who in 1997 mandated a high school graduation exam beginning with the Class of 2002, are counting on it to spur improvements. The state also is likely to use the test results to help publicly designate schools by their quality, as the law requires by fall 2002.

But some educators warn that it's hard to link test results to school quality because factors other than the educational program affect scores. Others say the tests actually could lead schools away from quality.

"The one thing I think is the biggest problem is we go from saying that we need to raise the standards, that kids need to know more, and we jump to testing," said Mary-Claire Tarlow, a professor of elementary education at the University of Alaska Southeast. "Testing doesn't teach."

And there's always the question of whether rising scores are due to better schools, or better test-taking, or selecting who takes the test.

Some educators particularly oppose high-stakes tests, in which an important decision about students, such as getting a high school diploma, is based on one test.

The International Reading Association said high-stakes tests can lead to a narrowing of the curriculum, a focus on the low-performing students and a loss of instructional time.

High-stakes tests also can encourage students to drop out which raises a school's average score by removing the weaker students, making it appear the school has improved.

That's what happened in Texas over the past 15 years, according to Walter Haney, a Boston College education professor who has studied standardized tests.

Over time, Texas tripled the percentage of black and Hispanic students who were held back in ninth-grade, the year before they would take the state standardized test, he said. About three-quarters of those students eventually dropped out. The high school scores in Texas went up.

Chalmers said he deals with a lot of disenchanted students who are looking for an excuse to drop out and they're worried about the high school test.

Chalmers also questions whether the high school test validly measures the standards, and he believes the topics for the writing assignments were unfair to some cultures or a gender.

The state reviewed the high school test questions for bias, said Ardy Smith Miller, an administrator with the state Department of Education. After giving field tests to samples of students, the state removed questions that large numbers of rural or urban students answered right or wrong, just in case the results were due to bias, she said.

Some want a delay

The Knowles administration plans to ask the Legislature to put off the high school test's effective date so poor results from the first crop don't kill the drive for state standards. The tests would continue to be given for diagnostic purposes, and the results noted in students' transcripts.

Deputy Education Commissioner Bruce Johnson said delaying the effective date to 2004 or 2006 would give students the benefit of the eighth-grade or sixth-grade benchmark results, and give schools more time to adjust courses to the standards.

Parental concern about tests is rising.

Thirty-four percent of public school parents in a nationwide survey said there's too much emphasis on tests, according to a poll in June by Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup Poll. That's up from 19 percent in 1997.

Seventy-one percent of surveyed parents thought classroom work and homework are the best ways to measure academic achievement. Only a quarter preferred test scores.

"It's one more way for we as parents to see that the school we are partially responsible for is succeeding if the test scores are going up," Valorie Ringle said about the state benchmark tests. She's a parent and site council member at Glacier Valley Elementary School,

But parents also have to consider other indicators such as the school's atmosphere, their children's impressions and happiness, and the quality of the homework, Ringle said.

Some educators say the test results lend themselves to simplistic judgments about schools.

A committee of educators, parents and business people is working on the criteria for designating Alaska's schools as distinguished, successful, deficient or in crisis. The Legislature required those designations by the fall of 2002.

Standardized test scores and drop-out rates are likely to have most of the weight in the criteria, Johnson said. Grades, course offerings and community service are too subjective, he said.

That sort of use of test scores is a serious concern to Carol Barnhardt, an education professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who otherwise supports the state standards and tests.

"If it's only test scores from one or two years and no other factors are included, I think the consequences of that would be really damaging," she said. "Any time you label a school it means teachers are less willing to go there, and students have a negative image of their school."

Don't teach to the test

Tarlow of UAS said schools give too many standardized tests (See the list of Juneau tests on Page A6), and the community should trust teachers more. "A good teacher is constantly assessing. There is a difference between assessing and testing."

Standardized tests create anxiety in students, Tarlow said. Tests end up dictating what kids will learn, and it doesn't lead to the kind of rich learning that teachers provide, she said. She doesn't think standardized tests, which she called fuzzy snapshots, are useful for showing students' strengths and weaknesses.


Elaine Schroeder, a Juneau parent, said she's concerned teachers will teach to the standardized tests, which are for English and math, while neglecting other courses or broader teaching methods.

A teacher who wanted to do a project that includes mediation, social skills and geography, for example, might not do it because of the pressure to teach to the tests, she said.

Juneau school administrators said they didn't think that would happen. Test results nationwide have shown that rich learning leads to higher test scores, not rote drills, said Peggy Cowan, the district's assistant superintendent.

If students are doing poorly in geometry, for example, "it won't be drill and kill," Cowan said. "It will be teaching a rich geometry so they can both learn geometry and do well on these tests."

Some school districts are learning from the state tests that students' weak points in English are with more complex skills such as composition, not grammar and punctuation, said Miller of the state Department of Education. Drills won't improve those types of skills, she said.

The state tests ask for written answers, not just multiple-choice selections. That makes it harder for teachers to prepare students by rote learning, Miller said.

Ringle, the Glacier Valley parent, said her school improved its math and English scores on standardized tests without sacrificing science and social studies. The school did it by working English and math into all subjects, she said. (See article on this page).

Do teach to the test

Some educators aren't worried about teaching to tests such as the state benchmark exams. There's nothing wrong with it if the test accurately measures a broad range of standards, said Dean Arrasmith, director of assessment at the private nonprofit Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Ore.

The state benchmark and high school tests and the Juneau School District's own assessments are based on standards of what children should know and be able to do. The results compare your child's performance to the standards, not other children.

Parents are used to what educators call norm-referenced tests, such as the California Achievement Test, in which children are compared with a national sampling of students.

A CAT score of 70 means the child did as well or better than 70 percent of a nationwide group of students. The test doesn't tell you whether the nationwide average or your child is well-educated.

Norm-referenced tests can lead to a narrowing of curriculum because the questions are designed to find distinctions among average students, Arrasmith said. Those tests don't show the students' greatest strengths or weaknesses, and they aren't necessarily linked to the school's content, he said.

Often the national sampling was done years ago. As teachers learn what's on the test, their students' scores go up, especially compared to the static scores of a national sample taken perhaps five or 10 years ago.

That's one reason for the "Lake Wobegon effect," a reference to humorist Garrison Keillor's comment that every child in his fictional town is better than average. Chances are, your children aren't doing as well against the current national average as you think they are.

Haney, the Boston College researcher, said there's less difference between norm-referenced tests and standards-based tests than some people would like to believe.

"No test, regardless of how broadly it covers subject matter can adequately represent a school curriculum," he said. "Distortions are inevitably wrought by high-stakes testing."

But Craig Mapes, a JDHS construction teacher who collaborates with English and math teachers, said the state tests measure minimal skills everyone should have. The tests don't limit teachers' ability to go well beyond the scope of what is tested, or dictate teaching methods, he said.

"The bottom line is it's a misconception that someone's going to go out and get a blue-collar job and not be proficient in reading, writing and math," Mapes said.

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