Missouri's statewide BEST test helps shape `basics' curriculum

Some Missouri teachers say BEST is anything but. But Chad Baer, 8th-grade social studies teacher at Brentwood Junior High here, says BEST is all for the better. BEST is Missouri's Basic Essential Skills Test, which in 1979 became mandatory for the state's 8th-graders. Since then, the number of students passing the test has steadily increased, especially in St. Louis, where less than half of the 8th-graders passed all three sections the first year and 71.3 percent passed this year.

But does BEST means better education?

Mr. Baer says the standardized test fits right in with what he is teaching. ``It's given me direction, and it's given the students goals to strive for,'' says Baer, who began teaching in 1978, when the test was first introduced on a voluntary basis.

Dr. Mary Ellen Finch, professor of education at Maryville College, concedes that ``the test can point out areas where teachers need to work.'' But she raises larger criticisms.

``My concern, and I see this happening in many school districts, is that teachers are teaching to the test content, which is narrowing the curriculum drastically.

``Rather than focus on critical thinking, for example, teachers are pressured into preparing kids for this test.''

English teacher Joan Krater of Hickson Junior High says the biggest problem with BEST is ``publicity, which puts pressure on teachers to adjust our curriculum -- water it down.''

Ms. Krater shares with other BEST critics a concern that students who have mastered the basics are deprived of valuable learning time. ``Some kids resent the test because it's so easy,'' she says.

How Missouri came to require this controversial test is a longer story than one might guess, but one not unique to the Show Me State, since BEST is a part of the current national trend toward testing.

It is also the outcome of several decades of standardized testing in the state.

Charles Foster, consultant to the Missouri commissioner of education, says standardized testing in Missouri traces back to the 1958 passage of the National Defense Education Act, which grew in the cold-war atmosphere of the '50s (when Americans were increasingly concerned over the scientific strides the Soviets were taking). Standardized testing was begun under Title 5B of the National Defense Education Act.

In 1959, the Missouri Department of Education bought a number of tests and made them available to schools, free of charge. Voluntary standardized testing continued in Missouri until the dissolution in 1970 of the National Defense Education Act.

Although the idea for the BEST test was introduced in 1975, the actual test was developed during 1976 and '77. Then, in 1978, after a lot of pilot testing, it was made available to Missouri schools on a voluntary basis. Sixty-thousand 8th-graders took BEST; only 60 percent of them passed.

When the Missouri Board of Education reviewed the test and results, it felt all students should be able to pass. It called for mandatory testing.

Activity booklets for all grade levels were created by theto help with instruction of basic skills. In March of 1979, all Missouri 8th-graders in public schools, excluding some special-education students, were required to take BEST. Students failing the test were required to take it the next year and would continue taking it until they passed.

BEST has three sections: reading and language arts, government and economics, and math. In addition,issued 20 objectives not covered in the test, leaving individual schools free to develop their own testing methods.

According to Mr. Foster, BEST has ``caused schools to look at youngsters individually, particularly those who are deficient in their essential skills.'' And he attributes to BEST the increasing number of Missouri students passing achievement tests and improving their standardized test scores.

But even Foster, who has overseen BEST since its inception, has reservations: ``I've been afraid this would become the 8th-grade curriculum. This would be sad. If we're just going over and over the basics, we end up spinning wheels.''

In an effort to avoid this potential quagmire,devised Instructional Management Systems (IMS) and made it the focus of the 1981 Regional Educational Conference.

Missouri education commissioner Arthur L. Mallory describes IMS as ``a way of organizing instruction and managing learning to ensure that instructional objectives are clearly defined; that all students have the time they need to master the objectives -- especially those deemed most important; and that teachers, students, and parents know precisely what has been achieved and what remains to be done.''

This is accomplished by allowing individual students to work on an objective (such as multiplying two- and three-digit numbers by two- and three-digit numbers) until they have achieved mastery. Close records are kept so that student, parents, teacher, and even next year's teacher know exactly where the student stands in his mastery of the objectives. In such a system, some 6th-graders could be working on 8th-grade-level objectives, while others are working to master 5th-grade-level objectives.

While the adoption by schools of IMS is strongly encouraged by the it remains voluntary.

In 1983, the first class of mandatory BEST testees graduated.s audits disclosed that 7 percent of the graduates never passed BEST, although they continued to be tested throughout high school. After holding hearings on the topic, MBOD ruled that beginning in the 1986-87 school year, no credit would be given in 9th grade for subjects failed on BEST in 8th grade. And starting in 1986-87, the test will be available twice a year for 9th-graders.

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