WASHINGTON — Don't look for questions like "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" in the latest round of state achievement tests.
After decades of softball exams - where most children scored above average - many states are raising the bar for what students are expected to know and do. And, at least at the beginning, the good news often looks bad.
When 50 percent of Massachusetts 10th-graders failed the state's tough new math test, state officials hailed the results as a historic turning point. At every level except eighth-grade English, most fourth-, eighth-, and 10th-graders failed to reach proficient levels in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), in results announced last week.
Ten years ago, such results would have sparked a run on the statehouse by angry parents and real-estate agents. But the Bay State took a cue from states that had already weathered dismal first-round assessments, such as Texas, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. Weeks before releasing the MCAS results, state officials began preparing the public for the low scores - and for the fact that improving them requires a sustained commitment to better content and teaching.
"If the first round of scores ... turned out to be high, such as 75 percent demonstrating proficiency, that would tell you that you set the standards too low," says Robert Schwartz, president of Achieve, an independent organization in Cambridge, Mass., created by governors and business leaders in 1996 to advise states on setting higher standards.
"The first round tells you just how steep the challenge is. Then, you hope ... that people begin to modify the curriculum, instructional strategies, and professional development. You hope to see a steady upward movement," he adds.
Millions spent since 1989
Since the first national education summit in Charlottesville, Va., in 1989, states have spent millions developing new standards for achievement and systems to make sure that schools teach them.
The mantra of this new movement: Be clear on what kids should know at each grade level. Use the tests to identify problems, then fix them. Focus the curriculum, mentor the teachers, fire the principal. No excuses. If student achievement doesn't improve, expect even more state intervention.
Nearly all states now test student achievement in reading and math, and 28 will have assessments in science and history by 2000. In addition, 19 states now require tests for student promotion or graduation, and 24 have set up sanctions for low-performing school districts, according to Achieve.
There have been perils for the pioneers. A poor showing on the first round of tests in some states has fueled calls to scuttle the tests, trash the teachers, or even the public school system.
"From 40 to 50 percent [of students] aren't going to meet the new state standards. Of course, there has been some backlash, but there will be a period of rising to those new standards," says Christopher Cross, executive director of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, which also evaluates state standards.
To avoid shooting the messenger, states are learning to prepare the public for bad news. In Washington State, for example, officials warned parents that initial test results would not be good and insisted that they be viewed just as a benchmark for needed progress. Local business leaders also mobilized to support the standards effort.
"The easy part is passing the standards legislation. The hard part will be sustaining school improvement over the long haul," says Bill Porter, executive director of the Partnership for Learning, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization of business and community leaders set up to boost academic standards and achievement in public schools.
But once the benchmark is set, states must demonstrate that students are making progress. For example, by 2003, seniors in Massachusetts will have to pass the 10th-grade MCAS test to graduate.
"Now that we have an accountability system in place, the focus really shifts to what is happening in the classroom and what teachers are doing to achieve the colossal ambitions of the reform," says Paul Reville, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education.
Business community backs efforts
One key to maintaining a push for higher standards is support of the local business community. In a report last month, Rand researchers cited Texas and North Carolina as the states making the most rapid gains in improving achievement.
"In both North Carolina and Texas, the business community played a critical leadership role in developing and sustaining reform," wrote co-authors David Grissmer and Ann Flanagan.
"What's important in Texas and North Carolina is that they've been at this over a decade and have managed to sustain continuity in this reform effort," adds John Barth, senior education associate with the National Education Goals Panel, which commissioned the report. "The business community was, over time, the most consistent and sustained voice for education reform and improvement."
In both states, clear standards were set up for each grade level, and individual schools were held accountable for student progress. Texas also required that test results be reported by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, and that schools meet performance targets for each group.
To earn the highest rating, schools must demonstrate that at least 90 percent of students in each group pass each subject area on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. From 1994-98, scores consistently improved, with the achievement of African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students rising faster than that of white students. "This requires schools to show progress not just for all kids but for every group. It doesn't let you hide bad performance. It forces the system to change itself," says Charles Miller, the senior businessman in the Texas reform effort.
"What brought the business community into this issue was that they're not happy with the skills of the people that were presenting themselves to be employed," says Darvin Winick, a Houston education consultant.
The process of ratcheting up achievement can involve high political stakes. Ysleta school district on the east side of El Paso, for example, managed to boost the pass rate in all of its schools to 90 percent, but only after 31 of 51 principals were replaced and two-thirds of teachers were fired or quit. In October, the superintendent who directed the reforms was let go by his school board.
Some business critics argue that the Texas standards aren't yet high enough on the math test, and that the difficulty of the reading test has declined. "We have no way of knowing if kids improved in Texas because the tests got easier," says Sandra Stotsky, a research associate at Harvard who evaluated the Texas reading test and helped develop the Massachusetts test. Texas officials dispute these conclusions, noting that the state's achievement on national tests confirms progress.
Such a debate would not even be possible if Texas had not made its testing and accountability system more transparent than that of most other states, adds Mr. Miller. "It's a healthy thing to talk about results. We will build accountability systems, and states will learn from each other. It encourages us to keep on doing better."
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