Testing puts the pressure on schools, with mixed results

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There is nothing President Bush's education plan sets forward with more clarity or urgency than the idea that testing to ensure accountability is key.

Under the plan, children would be tested annually in Grades 3 to 8. States could lose federal funding if their schools didn't close achievement gaps. And schools whose children lagged would receive extra help and then be subject to corrective action if they didn't improve.

The linchpin, though, is testing. Does testing encourage high performance, as advocates say? Or does it merely put extra pressure on children and teachers?

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As of last year, high-stakes testing had been implemented in about 19 states, according to the Education Commission of the States. Controversy has sometimes followed. Yet so, too, have some notable successes.

It wasn't that long ago that Pinkston Street Elementary School in Henderson, N.C., ranked among the lowest achievers in the state. In 1997, it was the worst performer in almost every category on North Carolina's first set of high-stakes reading and math tests. Three-quarters of the teachers resigned and the principal was fired.

Today, things couldn't be more different.

Pinkston's new principal, Beverly Joseph, and a crew of new teachers and stalwarts have turned the tide, a shift they credit to many factors, including the pressure and praise that have come from repeated testing.

"It's an awful lot of testing, no question about it," Ms. Joseph says. "But it does help us know how we're doing and keeps us on track."

Just 34.6 percent of the school's fifth-grade students last year were reading at grade level in 1999. But with rigorous work, that number leaped last spring to 66.7 percent - still low, but a huge improvement. Scores were up substantially in almost every other category, too.

But to accomplish that, teachers must train the students to take tests well. That means bi-weekly tests to ensure the lessons are absorbed. The practice tests get progressively longer - until a third-grade student can sit still for the statewide test each spring. "The kids can't just walk in cold turkey and take a three-hour test," Joseph says.

The University of Massachusetts (UMass) recently assessed its state's education-reform efforts, including a three-year-old testing system called MCAS. Despite extra funding in large urban areas, students there have shown no significant improvement in test results, the study says.

The state's Department of Education, however, showed that more than 60 percent of districts have at least one school that significantly boosted student achievement. William Wassel, the principal of Braintree High School, says the systematic emphasis on test preparation and remedial help for students who failed the eighth-grade exam in 1998 contributed to his district ranking 32nd in the state. According to the UMass study, demographics would have predicted it ranking 91st.

Some educators are concerned that if Bush's plan adds another layer of testing, it will be too much. "All this testing is pretty tough, and I don't think it's the best method of testing," says Erica Staine-Shoulders, Pinkston's fourth-grade math teacher. "Sometimes I question the value. But I'm grateful we're making progress and the scores are going up."

Associated Press material was used in this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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