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Education put to the test

(Page 2 of 3)

"We no longer have an economy where we can afford to have only a small set of educated people," warns Dr. Natriello.

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But some charge that progress toward the goal of widespread success for all students has been minimal - and too slow. A decade of innovation, they insist, has produced only pockets of success, as at Bronx Prep, that are virtually impossible to replicate.

Recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests present a murky picture at best when it comes to searching out gains. Although one of the goals of the 1989 summit was to make US students the world's top performers on math and science tests within a decade, on the 2000 NAEP science test, US fourth- and eighth-graders made no progress with respect to weak 1996 results. High school seniors' scores actually slipped a bit during the four-year period, with only 18 percent achieving "proficiency" in science, causing Education Secretary Rod Paige to glumly proclaim that "our hopes for a strong 21st-century workforce are dimming."

On NAEP math tests, fourth- and eighth-graders did show some progress, but 12th-graders' scores declined. And even though fourth-graders posted improved results on 2000 NAEP reading tests, fewer than one-third of them were reading at grade level.

Higher standards, or conformity?

The mere fact, however, that so much of the discussion about education reform remains tied to such test results is discouraging to some educators. They worry that the current drive toward quantifiable results is leaching life and creativity from the nation's classrooms - further alienating many kids already turned off by school.

Reformers counter with the argument that for decades, devotion to local control has prevented the development of anything like a national curriculum. The result has been a sort of crazy quilt of classroom goals and standards that can vary widely even within the same town.

Many argue that such lack of standardization had become a major obstacle.

"There is increasing agreement that to have something dramatically different happening from one fourth-grade classroom to the next is a problem," says Mary Fulton, policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "That's the way it always was in this country, and really it was not OK.

Since the 1989 summit, 49 states (Iowa is the lone holdout) have adopted statewide standards, spelling out what children in each grade must be able to know and do. For many reformers, that kind of clarity is a necessary starting point for improvement. Now, with national testing requirements looming, curricula in classrooms across the country are likely to become even more unified. But whether that kind of one-size-fits-all approach will promote or harm learning remains the subject of debate.

Noreen Connell, executive director of the New York-based school-watchdog group Educational Priorities Panel, says that much of what she's been witnessing in the city's public schools since 1989 troubles her. "You walk down the halls of these low-performing schools and you hear all the teachers giving the exact same lesson," she says. "A decade ago I could not have predicted that there would be so much micromanagement of the schools, so many high-stakes tests, so much anxiety about imposing standards, and so much imposition of cookie-cutter curricula."

But Ms. Connell has also been noting something encouraging: "I used to go into elementary schools in the early 1990s and see kids filling out blanks in workbooks. They had never actually written a sentence. Today, when I go to elementary schools I see them writing essays, reading books. The fourth-grade [state] test really stressed writing, and that forced the issue."

As much as she's always disliked the idea of teachers "teaching to the test," lately, Connell says, she's come to feel that "it's neither good nor bad, it's just inevitable."

What worries many, though, is the thrust toward conformity. While it may boost the bottom line, it could drag down high performers. Horror stories are rife of certain classes and specially crafted projects created by gifted teachers being dropped from schedules. Science projects that teach kids to track weather, history lessons shaped around an in-depth look at the Constitution - these kinds of explorations are often under attack because they subtract time from preparing students for standardized tests.