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Putting our students to the test: If it's constant, what does it mean?

December 10, 1999

A letter in The Herald-Mail Thursday raised the concern that the state school system is becoming so test-happy that the overall education process suffers as a result.

I kept thinking what a fine letter it was, and when I got to the bottom I found that it was written by my old friend Bill Moore, who is a guidance counselor at Northern Middle.

Bill and I became friends when he was mayor of Hedgesville and I was assigned to cover the town council meetings. It was in the days when, frankly, I was more concerned with who was playing at Shiley Acres than whether Hedgesville would be upgrading to a 1973 Ford F-350 Series municipal garbage truck.

But when the council was about to do something interesting, Bill would always wake me up and I'd take a few notes and then he'd kindly let me get back to my trance. What I learned was that when Bill said something was important it always was, and that his credentials for candor and perspective were impeccable.

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So I think it's worth listening when he writes: "In my 32 years as a guidance counselor this is the most testing that I have ever experienced in one year. It poses the question (whether) anyone at the State Department of Education is looking at the total picture of what is occurring in the schools due to this near monthly standardized testing."

Teachers tell me the same thing. The school calendar is choked with test dates and even when tests aren't being given the specter of the exams dominates the educational landscape. Teachers are always thinking about the tests, worrying about the results and preparing kids to perform not for life but for standardized measuring sticks cooked up by someone in a high-rise in Baltimore.

State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick wrote in a Dec. 7 op-ed piece, which I suppose was sort of a post-emptive strike against a newly released test scores that reflected declining results, "With the release of the 1999 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) results, we can clearly see that our school reform efforts are working, instruction is improving, and students are achieving at higher levels than in 1993 when MSPAP testing began."

Keep in mind this statement was made after state averages declined. Yes, scores are higher than they were in 1993 (probably due as much as anything to the fact that schools are learning what type of questions will be asked and prepping the students accordingly) but lower than they were a year ago.

Tests are supposed to heighten accountability. But accountability goes hand in hand with honesty, and if state officials freely "spin" their results to make things look better than they are, the value, such as it is, goes right out the window.

Who's to say that administrators who gloss over the truth wouldn't also make the tests a little easier next year to pad the results? Or change the grading technique, which is already pretty subjective? Administrators who twist the results offer the public no confidence that they would not bend to political pressure for improvement by jiggering the tests in other ways. And they also cheapen the efforts of county school systems like Washington, where test scores actually did go up this year.

What we're left with are students and teachers who are accountable and state administrators who aren't.

Another problem is that classes of kids aren't created equally. A teacher may have a smart third grade class one year and a comparative group of dullards the next. The first class gets a high score and sets a standard impossible to the next class to attain. "The same teacher, the same technique" can yield two radically different scores from one year to the next, a Washington County teacher says.

The problem is that the teacher will be spanked because test scores "declined," due not to her efforts, but because one class simply did not have the capability to achieve up to the other's ability.

Of further and perhaps greater concern is that students get caught up in the politics of test scores to the point where their education is of less priority than their ability to succeed on a standardized test. So we have third graders who know what an "entrepreneur" is, but may not be equipped with the skills it takes to become one.

Every year there is pressure to increase test scores. So every year, teachers must spend more time on testing and less on learning. Even when scores improve, the pressure is redoubled to do even better next time. Teachers whose classes receive a high score must be filled with equal parts elation and dread - happy over the fleeting success, but terrified there's no way the score will be matched and in the state's eyes she'll be branded a bad teacher.

Despite stacks of school administrative roundtable agendas, education is not terribly complicated. It takes a good teacher and interested parents. Given these two factors, a child will usually perform within the reason of their natural ability.

Half the equation is relatively easy. Make it pay for smart people to become teachers and strip away the archaic mechanisms that protect teachers who do not inspire from being told that perhaps they should find another line of work.

As for the parents? I have a friend who teaches some of the toughest cases under the toughest conditions in Baltimore City. He says that even when the kids have every other economic, social and cultural disadvantage imaginable, "if the parents are interested you can generally do something with them."

And how do the schools boost parent interest? "When I find that out," he said, "I'll let you know."




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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