NEW YORK — Students who attend the Minnesota New Country Day School, an alternative public high school in Henderson, don't spend much time sitting at desks hunched over exam papers. Instead, they tend a herd of angora goats, run an embroidery company, and study genetic mutations in local frogs.
That's why Dee Thomas, one of the school's co-directors, sighs when she's asked about the requirement that her students face standardized state tests. "Sure, we can jump through their hoops and do the standardized-test thing," she says. "But I don't think that's a true reflection of what we're doing with our kids."
That concern is echoing among alternative educators throughout the United States as mandated testing gains favor. Heavy reliance on testing, many of them say, is a misguided attempt at a one-size-fits-all system of education.
But other educators say graduates of an alternative school should be able, like other students, to write clearly and read with understanding. And requiring mastery of a basic core of knowledge is not unreasonable, they argue.
"I'd put pretty heavy burdens on the schools to show they're doing something special," says Marci Kanstoroom, research director at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington. "I wouldn't just give them a blank check to do whatever they want without any accountability."
New York is the most recent state to put testing squarely in the limelight. Last month, New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills rejected a request from 40 schools to substitute year-end projects for state English exams required for high school graduation.
The decision sent a tremor throughout the nation's alternative-school community. Many of the schools asking to extend a five-year waiver from the exam are well-regarded and have strong track records. Some have received state awards for excellence in the curriculum. Educators worry that if even these schools are allowed no flexibility, it's a warning signal for the future standing of alternative schools.
What is an alternative school?
It's hard to define exactly what constitutes an "alternative" school. Some of the schools involved in the waiver application don't even fit such a designation.
But loosely speaking, public alternative schools, while remaining part of the public system, work outside of the conventional mode, catering particularly to students who haven't succeeded in traditional academic settings.
They often are "learner-centered," and attempt to tap a student's innate enthusiasm and interests by immersion in individual projects and endeavors. They frequently recruit from the extreme ends of the academic spectrum, appealing both to kids who struggle in ordinary school settings and those who are highly gifted.
Instead of using exams, many of these schools prefer to evaluate their students by watching them perform or looking at long-term projects. But as many states require students to pass standardized tests in order to graduate, the creative evaluation methods have put alternative schools at odds with state policymakers.
Many educators see the test requirements as entirely reasonable. "The state has the right to ask a certain amount of knowledge and preparation before they grant a diploma," says Ms. Kanstoroom. "Any graduate of a strong program ought to be able to do well on the tests."
But the need to prepare students for the state regents exams interferes with a school's ability to offer a different kind of curriculum, says Eric Nadelstern, principal of the International High School, one of the New York schools affected by Mills's decision. Mr. Nadelstern's school requires its 435 students, before graduation, to present and defend a portfolio of work, including a literary essay, an original science experiment, an application of conceptual mathematics, and creative art work.
It's a rigorous process, one that teaches his students far more than a standardized exam could, Nadelstern says. He adds that time constraints won't allow his students to also prepare for the standardized test. As a result, his school might be forced to sacrifice the project-oriented curriculum.
Losing schools along the way
Mandated testing will make it impossible for some schools like Nadelstern's to operate, says Daniel Duke, professor of education at the University of Virginia and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Educational Design. "It will be a tragedy, but we will probably lose a number of [alternative schools]," he says. What troubles him is the prospect that kids will have fewer options. Taking away alternative instruction and assessment means "the students who've always been on the bottom will remain on the bottom," he says.
In the case of New York State, some of the concerns connected with the tests could be premature. Although the English exam is now required, the commissioner has said he will take a year to decide whether certain schools could be exempted from exams in social studies, science, and math. A number of the schools are hopeful they will not be required to submit to a full round of testing.
Ms. Thomas at the New Country School says state tests have posed no problem. "If we're doing our job, [students] are going to do fine," she says. But she's firm that an alternative school can use alternative but still-effective assessments. "I want the state to recognize other forms of assessment and give us credit for using them."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society