Testing put to the test

Low student scores raise controversy over movement to enforce standards.

Massachusetts student test results released this week seem bad enough to make any parent or teacher shudder:

* 50 percent of 10th-graders flunked the state math test.

* 40 percent of eighth-graders failed the science portion.

* 66 percent of fourth-graders fell into the "needs improvement" category.

While these results appear dismal, they highlight both the promise and pitfalls of using standards-based testing to boost academic progress - one of the most dramatic trends in American education in recent decades.

So far, some 20 states are setting rigorous academic standards and then testing kids to ensure they meet them. Nearly every state is expected to.

The experience in Massachusetts, which is being closely watched because it administers among the toughest tests in the country, shows how much politicians and education officials have learned about fine-tuning the process - and how far they still have to go. The big question: Can states avoid a public backlash so big that it sinks the entire standards-based movement to improve schools?

When the initial results come out, "it's very difficult because there seems to be no good answer for why they're so low," says Chris Pipho, a senior fellow with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "These awful numbers are just staring you in the face."

But Mr. Pipho adds, "the standards movement is starting to put a tight focus on what needs to be covered" - it's giving educators specific bench marks against which to measure the progress of individual students, schools, and districts. Then they target students, schools, or areas that need assistance.

One noble aspect of the standards movement is that it aims to ensure all kids reach the high goals - a fact driven by the changing economy.

"It used to be that it was OK if some people dropped out and didn't get high-school degrees," says Paul Reville, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. "But in today's high-tech world, everyone needs a high-school degree."

Yet there are critics. Some say the tests discriminate. Virginia decided against lowering its test standards for low-income schools, arguing it would be too complicated. This sparked protests by teachers and parents. In Texas, Mexican-Americans have filed a federal lawsuit, saying the state's tests discriminate.

One thing politicians and education officials are learning is that much of the success of the standards approach depends on how it's presented.

In announcing initial numbers, they explain that the results may seem bad, but that they're simply a beginning. In Massachusetts, a week before the numbers were announced, officials made test questions available to the public to highlight how tough the exams are - to help mollify the parents and teachers.

Officials repeated that the results simply provide a baseline - a tool to show what students know and don't know. The real test, they said, will be whether the numbers improve next year.

States are also learning to tread carefully in holding students, teachers, and schools accountable for low scores. "A lot of people say, 'Let's put a bomb under that poorly performing school and just blow it up,' " Reville says. "But the answer isn't to shout at these schools."

Many are moving away from tough accountability. North Carolina, for example, has dropped a plan to automatically suspend principals whose schools underperform two years in a row. In Michigan, the governor dropped plans to force state takeovers of below-average districts.

Yet some districts are staying tough. Chicago has fired the entire staff of teachers, administrators, and counselors at about 100 schools with chronic underperformance and has hired all-new educators. How quickly the accountability is implemented is an issue too. Virginia will require students to pass six of 11 high-school tests in order to graduate - but not until 2004.

All these steps are designed to avoid the kind of backlash Kentucky experienced. It embarked on a much-lauded accountability program eight years ago, only to abandon it this year under public pressure, having spent $45 million.

So far, Massachusetts appears to be avoiding the firestorm that brought down the Kentucky program. Much of public opinion here is typified by Laurie Leary of Millis, Mass. Ms. Leary says her fifth-grader, Colton, actually liked taking the test last year. She's happy with the way the test is changing the curriculum. "Now teachers are having to teach critical thinking," she says. "Instead of being so caught up in things like spelling, kids are really learning how to form their ideas."

Yet she empathizes with other parents, who worry about a looming deadline: Starting in 2003, students will have to pass the 10th-grade test to graduate. "What if they're having a bad day? What are going to be the consequences?"

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