Test scores: flash point for schools
As mostly poor results roll in, districts react in varied ways - from
From New York to California, some of the first results of America's bold experiment in school testing are coming in - offering a glimpse into how well a decade of education reform is working.Skip to next paragraph
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The early verdict: Class, take out your books again. Many cities and states are reporting declining or below-standard scores in reading, math, and other basic skills. Others are showing mixed results at best.
But experts say what's important is not the early scores themselves. It's what schools do with them. While some districts are using the numbers to change classroom practices, administrators and politicians in other parts of the country are taking stern action:
*Recent test scores in New York City showed a sharp drop-off in student reading and math. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) is calling for placing city schools directly under the control of the mayor's office, while schools Chancellor Rudy Crew says he would use these scores to replace district superintendents, principals, and teachers whose students did not perform well.
*In its first statewide report card, Florida told 78 schools - about 3 percent of the total - that they would have to offer their students vouchers to attend another (public or private) school if they do not improve in the next year. According to the June 24 report, most Florida students attend mediocre or below-standard schools.
*Massachusetts education officials predicted last week that a high percentage of the class of 2003 might not pass the new Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test. One possible result: lawsuits from angry parents.
High-profile tests with teeth are a new development in American education. In the past test results were relegated to district office back files. Parents knew their children's scores, but rarely knew how well local schools compared with others. Congress approved the first nationwide test (the National Assessment of Progress, or NAEP) only on condition that the results could not be used to identify the performance of individual schools or districts.
After a decade of reform, 48 states now have testing systems; 20 have graduation requirements. Increasingly, statewide results are reported down to the individual school level. Newspapers publish them. Real-estate agents post them on Web sites or in ads as a guide to homebuyers.
And consequences are beginning to kick in. For example, 610 high school seniors failed Nevada's exit math and reading exams for the sixth time last week. They have two other chances this summer to pass the test. If they don't, they won't graduate. Some states give teachers or schools bonuses for good results; poor results can drive schools or entire districts into new management.
"It takes a while to sort this out," says Bella Rosenberg of the American Federal of Teachers, the No. 2 teachers' union. "But there are some very irresponsible uses being made out of the new data - in New York City, for example."
Indeed, analysts caution that publishing who's up and who's down doesn't solve the problem of how to improve learning. The systematic use of tests to adjust classroom teaching is a slow process - and is just beginning in some states.