Do high-stakes tests change a school? Yes.

HIGH-STAKES TESTS: These exams test knowledge as well as skills, such as writing ability. In a growing number of states, they are required for promotion to the next grade or to graduate.

CALIFORNIA'S 'GOOD' ENGLISH STANDARD: Ninth- and 10th-graders must "identify and describe the function of dialogue, scene design, soliloquies, and asides and character foils in dramatic literature."

Testing is changing the way K-12 students are taught. Fast.

The proof is on the wall in Gail Coskey's classroom at the Canterbury Street School in Worcester, Mass. Her fourth-grade mantra in large chalk letters fills a blackboard with: "The Writing process: prewriting, writing, revising, editing, publishing."

So for two hours each morning, Ms. Coskey's 23 students from one of the toughest urban areas in the state do just that. They read an essay or book excerpt. She prods them with non-stop questions. They make a "word web" diagram on paper to organize, compare, and contrast ideas. Then they write, revise - and write some more.

It wasn't always this way. A few years ago, writing was just another subject. Today it occupies a privileged position in every grade in this K-6 school.

The primary reason, she and others say, is simple: Good writing is key to passing "the test."

Forty-eight states have adopted annual statewide standardized tests - to measure how well each school is teaching curricula that embody new state education standards.

But in 25 states, including Massachusetts, the test is (or soon will be) a high-stakes exam that students must pass to graduate from high school or be promoted to the next grade. If students don't pass, they are held back - and teachers and principals start losing their jobs.

Once it was enough to move steadily through the grades and rest assured that, barring big problems, you'd get your sheepskin. Yet functional illiteracy among high school graduates, poor student scores on international tests, complaints from businesses and parents, and over-stuffed college remedial classes have changed all that.

Under pressure to make public schools competitive and accountable, states are sending a blunt message: "Teachers, principals, administrators: If your kids don't pass the test, you and your school don't either."

After poor test results last year, North Carolina sent "assistance teams" (some called them SWAT teams) into 15 low-performing schools. Several principals and teachers were fired. Others quit. Many others began working furiously to bring up student performance. And the results are starting to show.

President Clinton and Education Secretary Richard Riley both cited North Carolina for its improved performance on national reading and other tests. Similar test-driven change is happening in Texas and other states.

Massachusetts is in its second year of high-stakes testing, known as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. After results of the first MCAS came out last December, parents and educators mewled about or trumpeted their school's results. But love it or hate it, every Massachusetts high-schooler beginning in 2001 must pass it in 10th grade to graduate. If they fail, they must take it in 11th grade and in 12th if necessary.

Already there are signs that MCAS is changing attitudes - especially among the fourth-, eighth-, and 10th-graders who first took it last spring.

The countdown is on

Just inside the door of Dr. Arthur F. Sullivan Middle School, a modern school on a wooded suburban hillside, the countdown to this spring's MCAS is under way. A large sign blares: "48 days to MCAS - We're gonna pass!"

Less sure is Amanda Butler-Jones, an eighth-grade student. "I am just a little bit worried," she admits. "It's a major deal - you know, you just have to pass the test or you don't graduate." She says she's paying close attention in class and working harder.

So is Principal John Bierfeldt. He has plastered Sullivan's walls with "atmospherics" - slogans like "MCAS: Minds Creatively Achieving at Sullivan" to build student enthusiasm. Each class - from social studies to physics - stresses writing. Once a week, all classes come to a stop so students can practice essay answers.

An air of urgency pervades Sullivan, in part because the school's average scores in both math and science were solidly in the "failing" category and in "needs improvement" for reading.

"Yes, there is pressure on all of us, from the teachers to the principals," he says with a tight smile. "If Sullivan Middle continues to do poorly on MCAS, it will be labeled underperforming - and the state has the option to say, 'Bierfeldt, you're out.' That's the bottom line. I don't worry about it. I just go full-steam ahead."

Competition is a deliberate part of the game, observers agree. Competition is heating up as urban systems like Worcester's try to fight their way up the rankings against suburban schools.

The city's overall MCAS score is hardly auspicious: 194th among 208 districts. But a closer look shows Worcester schools are far better than the raw ranking. Worcester students tied for first with the Cambridge School District when compared with 14 large, medium, and small urban areas with similar demographics.

"Worcester is performing about the best of the cities," says Robert Gaudet, the author of a recent analysis of MCAS test results for the Donahue Institute, a nonprofit research group at the University of Massachusetts. He calls Worcester "a star," albeit one with challenges ahead.

Paul Reville, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who chairs the state's Education Reform Review Commission, says, "Worcester is coming out at the top of the pile."

A brighter future

The future did not always appear bright. Worcester's 21,000-student system - where in many schools, more than half the students are eligible for subsidized or free lunch - was in the doldrums with slowly rising but mediocre scores on the state's previous standardized test.

All that began changing when superintendent James Garvey and deputy superintendent Jim Caradonio took over six years ago. Spurred on by the knowledge that MCAS was coming, Caradonio and Garvey began convincing teachers and principals that a vigorous new testing regime was needed.

Tests like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the California Achievement Test became a prominent feature, and results were fed to teachers to spot gaps in the curriculum and individual learning. With MCAS, results are even more precise.

Mobilizing the teachers

Using specialized software to dissect MCAS results, Mr. Caradonio's team knows which pupil, in which class, did poorly on which questions. That helps identify math or writing concepts that caused trouble. Such detail was never available before.

Its impact can be seen back at the Canterbury Street School, a modern brick bunker in a neighborhood of dilapidated triple-decker homes.

Last May, Canterbury fourth-graders took MCAS and scored "proficient" in science and math - much better than the state average and better than two-thirds of other Worcester K-6 schools. Yet in reading, Canterbury's kids fell into "needs improvement." So along with other city schools, Canterbury is screening third-graders with other tests to see if they are candidates for pre-MCAS tutoring.

In Coskey's fourth-grade class at 1:50 p.m., two short beeps of a hallway horn signal the end of classes, followed by an explosion of chairs being slammed upside down atop their desks.

But it's not the end of Coskey's day. After escorting her students to their buses, she returns to an hour of tutoring.

One on one

Waiting for her is Loan [pronounced LON] Tran, whose parents immigrated from Vietnam. Loan tested low on the Iowa Basic Skills test. The writing portion that involved long reading passages and essay responses was hard for her.

Like Loan, 10 other students in this school of 387 pupils are taking special after-school MCAS tutoring funded by state grants.

Loan waits for direction - and then begins to read aloud. She moves smoothly through the first sentences of a complex essay from last year's MCAS explaining how fossilized amber can form with insects trapped inside. Then Loan trips over the word "thrived."

"OK, let's go back and read the first words again, '40 million years ago,' " Coskey says gently. "When did this story take place - yesterday? "No," says Loan, "it was 40 million years ago."

"Now, what would happen if an insect went up a tree and touched sap - close your eyes and imagine it - see the mosquito fly up to the sap, and zap, he's stuck - what happens?" "He dies," Loan responds, eyes widening with understanding."

"That's right," Coskey says. "OK, they want to know how he got stuck," she says - and "how the resin became amber." Loan gets her pencil out. Slowly she writes in neatly printed words. "The ant is looking for food."

Coskey smiles. So does Loan. The painstaking process continues a word at a time. At last, Loan has assembled a six-sentence paragraph analyzing the essay.

"You know what I would do if I was the MCAS person scoring - I'd give you a 4 - it's perfect."

Loan's face lights up.

After Loan leaves, Coskey, a 14-year teaching veteran, sighs deeply. The test, she explains, is indeed helping her prepare her students in a way nothing else can, she says. But it has also created pressures she can hardly bear.

"Everything I've done over the last three years has been done to teach the [state] frameworks," she says. "It does make it a little less creative because you can't go off on a tangent for a few days. But the fact we now have a commonly understood curriculum for all kids is worth giving up some of that creativity."

She feels intensely responsible for each child's performance. With MCAS, the pressure is so great she has at last decided she does not want to teach fourth grade anymore. Another grade - any other - would be fine.

"No one wants to do it [fourth grade] or be it," she says with a tired grimace. "I just feel like there's too much pressure because no matter what, it's going to come back on us [when students fail]. I want to get out. I do."

In addition to tremendous pressure on teachers, critics target what they say is rote drilling at the expense of understanding fundamental skills.

But Coskey, Canterbury principal George Sanders, Caradonio, and other Worcester educators strongly disagree.

"It's taken us out of rote learning and made us deal with the critical thinking process," Coskey says. "Children have to explain how they got to a certain point.... I ask students 'why' a lot more.

"Worcester has done well because we got aligned [with state standards] years ago," she adds. "We've been given the tools. I know the kids can do even better. I just put too much pressure on myself to have them do well."

*Send e-mail comments to claytonm@csps.com

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