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States scurry to lift pupil scores

As standardized exams reveal scope of the challenge, more states put teachers to test.

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 2000



Five years into the testing "revolution" in public schools, states are experimenting with - and struggling over - their responses to widespread student failure.

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From California to Massachusetts, poor standardized test scores are spurring a new round of reforms - everything from mandatory summer school for underperforming kids to state takeovers of selected schools.

In fact, while implementing standardized testing was a major hurdle for most states, their response to the results is now proving to be an even higher one.

"This is an evolutionary process, and [figuring out who should be held accountable] is the next step," says David Griffith of the National Association of State Boards of Education in Alexandria, Va. "We're finding out that it's ... the most difficult step so far."

States' responses have tended to focus on one of three areas: students themselves, low-achieving schools, and increasingly, teachers. And each is proving to be more problematic than expected.

*In California, summer school is a key intervention for failing kids who want to advance to the next grade. But so many students need help that school districts don't have enough money to provide quality classes.

*In Florida, children who attend low-ranked public schools - as determined by student test scores - are free to attend private schools at state expense. But the plan is being challenged as unconstitutional.

*Massachusetts, in a bold step, has decided to begin testing math teachers whose students perform poorly on a statewide test. It would be one of the first states to test existing teachers - a move expected to bring a lawsuit from the teachers union.

"Testing of math teachers is certainly unusual, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see more of that cropping up around the country as one of the means of intervening in low-performing schools," says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "It's pretty difficult to teach the subject matter if you don't know it yourself."

While many analysts expected low scores in the first years of standardized testing, there's a certain urgency to school districts' efforts to improve them. The reason? Eventually, students won't get their high school diplomas if they can't pass the tests.

In Massachusetts, for example, the tests will count in 2003. Between now and then, the state has far to go to lift student performance. Fifty percent of 10th-graders failed the math portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) in 1998, and 53 percent failed in 1999.

And Bay State students do better than pupils in some other states that link standardized tests to graduation. As a result, some have pushed back the date when these graduation exams take effect. Just last week, the Maryland State Board of Education voted to delay its testing requirement by two years - until 2007. Worried that almost one-third of their students wouldn't pass, school officials said more time was needed to prepare for the exam.

"Everyone's knees buckle" when they see low test scores, says Mr. Griffith. "But now that student standards are more rigorous,... the challenge is making sure teacher qualifications are aligned with those standards."

Other school districts, too, have begun targeting teachers with everything from sanctions to cash rewards to competency tests. Such consequences for teachers will lift student scores, predicts Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington. "Good things should happen to those who meet standards or make progress toward meeting standards, and some kind of intervention or change or discomfort needs to befall those who don't make progress or don't meet standards," he says.

Massachusetts, which says testing math teachers is designed to help them recognize their shortcomings and won't result in firings, is not alone in beginning to focus on teachers.

In Delaware, the governor recently signed a law that links educators' job-performance evaluations to their students' test scores. A new system was also created for licensing, certifying, and reviewing the performance of teachers and school administrators.

In Kentucky, teachers get cash rewards if students do well. But they also face tough scrutiny if students do poorly. And in Cincinnati, principals' pay is linked to test results.

Because it's too soon to tell which measures will yield better student test scores, it's hard to know if state lawmakers will remain committed to testing - and continue to dole out money for experimental "fixes."

"We're in the very early days of watching [states] devise the consequences - and get cold feet about the political implications or consequences," says Dr. Finn.

Indeed, testing - and the changes to the education establishment that are sure to come with it - is under siege from a number of quarters.

"Holding schools and districts accountable is fine, but the governor and the board have to be accountable to us that the resources are reaching the classrooms," Kathy Kelley, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, told a local newspaper after hearing about math-teacher testing.

Some critics worry that students in poor areas - which are often in minority communities - will be disproportionately denied their diplomas. Attracting good teachers to these schools will become even more problematic than it already is, they add.

Meanwhile, some parents and teachers say student testing waters down the academic curriculum. When teachers teach to a test, actual student understanding can slip, they say.

Concerns are mounting, too, about cheating. Principals in Connecticut and New York have been taken off the job for allegedly tampering with testings at their schools.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society