One County Gets Serious About Tests
Kids Held Back
To Keith Beamon, the answer seemed simple enough. If you want to raise test scores, make students more accountable for their performance. And how best to make them accountable? Advance them for scoring well and hold them back when they test poorly.Skip to next paragraph
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But after a year of parent protests that led to a federal lawsuit, Mr. Beamon and other Johnston County school officials no longer see their new policy as such a straightforward solution.
Despite students' rising scores under the year-old system, the plan requiring students to pass an exam before they can be promoted to the next grade faces powerful opposition.
Parents claim the schools are abandoning their neediest students by failing them. School officials counter that they are merely identifying pupils who require special instruction and then providing it for them.
"Our view of retention is different from some parents' views of retention," says Beamon, who oversees the county's testing policy. "We feel that after taking [all the steps of the policy] into account, if the child still fails, that child needs some extra time and extra attention."
The tug of war has pushed this quiet farming community into the midst of a fractious national debate over end-of-grade testing. School systems from Texas to Massachusetts - as well as President Clinton - are calling for stricter curriculum standards and regular testing in response to concerns about poor student performance.
Johnston County is one of the first school systems to link tests with promotion - and it offers an early look at the many questions that arise when schools fail students who don't pass end-of-grade tests. Can one test measure a student's performance? What services are offered to students who fail? Does this system put minority and special-education students at a disadvantage? Does failing a student do more damage than good by lowering his or her self-esteem?
"We're seeing the attention really go down to the student, because they were left out of the equation of accountability before," says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "As a result, we're seeing the Chicagos and the Johnston Counties pop up," she says, referring to exam policies in both places.
The Johnston County policy is laid out like this: Students whose performances appear to be lagging get remedial training - from in-school tutoring to extra instruction on Saturdays. If they are still struggling midway through the year, parents are notified that their child may be held back.
At the end of the school year, third-graders and up take reading and math exams. They must score within a range the state has set as a passing grade. If students do not pass, their teachers can appeal their cases. In addition, students receive extra remediation and can take the test again. If they fail a second time, they can attend summer school and take the test a third time. If they fail that test, they are held back.
Last year, 9 percent of Johnston County's 18,000 students were retained - most of them elementary and middle- school pupils. The year before the policy was adopted, 2 percent of the students were not promoted.
In many ways, the county has done what it set out to do: improve its schools' performance compared with other North Carolina systems. Last year, the state recognized 20 out of 23 Johnston County schools for achieving above-average improvement in their students' work. At those schools, teachers were rewarded with $1,000 bonuses.
"This was unbelievable," Beamon says. "We're not a system that's used to being recognized for excellence in our schools." Johnston County, 25 miles southeast of Raleigh, is now ranked among the top districts in North Carolina in terms of improved student performance.