Quality management in US-schools:" America's Test Anxiety" on the web-site for teachers and learners of English as a secondary language from a German point of view
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September 6,1999


America's Test Anxiety
High-stakes test are rapidly becoming a rite of passage in districts around the country.
But do they really improve learning? BY DANIEL MCGINN

Inside Chicago's Top-ranked Whitney Young High-School, the posters started appearing last December. "Let's be #1!" "Give it 110%!" Usually this sort of rah-rah propaganda supports the basketball team, but this campaign by the principal had a different aim: urging kids scoring high on the Illinois Goal Assessment Program, a standardized test that students would take in February. Test are nothing new to the kids at Whitney Young - they already take three other batteries of standardized exams each year. But for a group of high-achieving 11th graders, the pressure was just too much. These kids say real learning is being shoved aside as teachers focus on boosting test scores. Creative writing? Forget it. Instead, they say, teachers emphasize boilerplate essay format that exam scorers prefer. So on Feb.2, eight juniors purposely failed the social-studies portion of the test. The next day, 10 failed the science test. Then they sent a letter to the principal: "We refuse to feed into this test-taking frenzy."

As rebellions go, it wasn't exactly the Boston Tea Party. But it's a small sign of the growing anxiety among parents, teachers and kids over the proliferation of standardized tests. Fill-in-the bubble exams have been part of classroom life for decades, but for most of their history they were no big deal. Scores were tucked in students' folders; at most, they were used to segregate kids into higher- and lower-level classes. That's changed dramatically in the last decade as reformers try to improve school quality by holding educators accountable for learning. Every state has a different testing scheme, but many state legislatures are writing new standards for what kids should learn in each grade and mandating tough new "high stakes" tests to gauge progress. Unlike such old-style standardized tests as the Iowas or Metropolitans, many of the new exams are linked to the curriculum and feature essays and short answers, not just multiple choice. The biggest difference: low scores can bring real pain. Kids can be held back, forced into summer school or, under rules in 26 states, denied a diploma. Educators can lose pay or be fired; schools can face state takeover. In polls, the tests win wide public support, and more states are jumping on the bandwagon.

Yet there is no easy answer to the most basic question: do these tests help kids learn? As the testing movement has grown, opposing experts have churned out a mountain of conflicting research. Fans of the tests say they're as necessary to schooling as a scale is for dieting. Ideally, they're diagnostic tools, letting teachers know jack doesn't understand two-digit multiplication and Jill needs help with subject-verb agreement. Yes it's sad that a single exam might keep a child from graduating, but most European countries already use exit exams, and some U.S. students are kept from graduating for lesser offenses, like flunking gym or cutting too many classes. And as schools ask for money to hire teachers and cut class size, taxpayers have every right to expect a measurable payback. Supporters of the new exams point to encouraging results in Texas, one of the first states to implement this type of reform plan.

Despite those arguments, a growing number of critics say this testing inevitably leads to dumbed-down teaching. "Every hour that teachers feel compelled to try to raise test scores is an hour not spent helping kids become critical, creative, curious thinkers," says Alfi Kohn, author of "The Schools Our Children Deserve." It's those skills, after all, that put the United States ahead of world competitors in areas like entrepreneurship. Last fall the National Research Council warned Congress that schools should refrain from basing important decisions like who gets promoted or graduates solely on test scores, and called for more exploration of the unintended consequences of high-stakes exams. Teachers in the inner circles, where many children are being held back for failing the tests, worry that those exams are overwhelming their already overcrowded and understaffed classrooms. Suburban homeowners have more bottom-line concerns; they fear that dismal Test scores will lower home values. For now, those worries will persist. Testing opponents have scored small victories in places like Wisconsin, but momentum is on the side of reformers. As kids return to classroom this fall, the new exams will be part of the curriculum.

At Madison High School in Houston, Texas, the tests have already brought an innovation that makes teenagers cringe: Saturday classes. In 1990 Texas replaced its old test with a tough new one (its acronym: TAAS): students who failed wouldn't graduate. Early results were abysmal. Madison principal Warner Ervin remembers when dozens of seniors failed. Students were crushed, parents irate, teachers embarrassed. "It was difficult for everyone," Ervin says. So in 1997, Ervin began requiring every failing kid to attend tutoring sessions, some held on Saturday. The year before the tutoring began, 57 seniors failed; last spring the whole class passed. Results are also improving statewide. Last spring 78 percent of Texas students passed the test, up from 53 percent in 1994. Education is certain to be the key issue in the presidential race, so expect Gov. George W. Bush to tout this track record.

Other states boast their own success stories. Take 9-year-old Steven Ip of Brooklyn, one of 17,591 third graders who failed the high-stakes test given to New York City kids for the first time last winter. Steven, whose parents immigrated from China, has solid math skills, but because of his limited English ability, he scored in the 11th percentile on the reading test. So like a record 37,000 New York City kids, he faced mandatory summer school; if he failed his retest in August, he'd be forced to repeat third grade. During the sweaty weeks in a classroom at P.S. 241, teacher Maria Teresa Maisano worked with Steven and seven other students. They read books in class and for homework, learning how to ask questions and find key ideas. When test day arrived, Steven felt prepared. Like roughly 60 percent of the summer students, he passed the exam and can start fourth grade. The city's school chancellor, Rudolph Crew, has been blasted for retaining kids and mandating summer school, but he's standing firm. "This is high anxiety - it's not for meek of heart," he says. But I think it's the right thing to do."

Other educators aren't so enthusiastic. At Santa Monica Boulevard Elementary in Los Angeles, the lilting sounds of Spanish fill the playground. But in teacher David Levinson's fifth grade, as in all other California schools, classes must be taught in English. For 31 of 32 students, English is a second language. "The scores for most of these kids are low, and it's not too hard to figure out why," says Levinson. These tests are extremely unfair." But they're the law, and as a consequence they're beginning to drive the curriculum. "We spend a lot more time teaching to the test and a lot less on the kind of hands-on, learn-by-doing teaching we did in the past," says the school's longtime principal, Albert Arnold. "My teachers are very frustrated, and kids pick up on that." They'll be more frustrated next year when, for the first time, students who fail the test are held back.

California's on-again, off-again testing regimen shows just how messy the transition to exam-driven reform can be. Until the late '80's, California's schools were top-notch. Then in the early '90's, a sinking economy, political bickering over education reform and a growing immigrant population set them back. So the state devised a new test, the California Learning Assessment System. But critics attacked essay questions as too subjective to be fairly graded, and reformers who favor a back-to-basics approach lobbied for more focus on the three R's. By 1994 the CLAS was dead, and students went untested for three years as legislators debated new standards. Most experts urged them to design a customized exam that tests exactly the skills the state's kids should be learning, instead of an off-the-shelf national exam. When standards, curriculum and tests are aligned through the made-to-order tests many states are adopting, "teaching to the test" can become a positive technique, experts say. But California's leaders couldn't wait for a custom exam, so they opted to use a generic test in the interim. Experts say that's been a weak link in their reform plan. "The system in California is imperfect," says Prof. Kenji Hakuta of Stanford University. "What's needed are tests that more closely line up to instruction." This disparity is a recurring theme: experts favor a gradual, methodical transition, but political realities often force quick, crude steps to try to show improvement before the next election.

As testing spreads, experts aren't the only ones parsing the quality of exams. When Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thomson proposed a statewide graduation exam in 1997, he had wide public support. Then parents saw sample questions. "It scared the heck out of them," says state Sen. Bob Jauch. "They weren't sure they could pass it themselves." A strange coalition of opponents emerged, consisting of parents concerned that the tests were too tough, educators who resented the state's giving orders to locally run schools and legislators who'd rather spend the $ 10 million testing budget on a tax cut. By June, Wisconsin's new test was dead.

Tales like that one give hope to the Chicago kids at Whitney Young who bucked the test last winter. Over the summer they rounded up like-minded students from other schools and named themselves the Organized Students of Chicago. They've already passed out leaflets denouncing the city's test mania; now they're planning teach-ins. The focus on the exams "just seems so totally excessive," says Will Tanzman, 17. Eli Presser, an 18-year-old who graduated last spring but is still active in the group, says the rising number of tests makes students feel "like they're under constant jeopardy - like every single test was going to influence their life." For refusing to take last year's exam, principal Joyce Kenner ordered the students to perform 10 hours of community service. So far they haven't served it, and they may rally more students to boycott the exams this winter.

School officials are sympathetic to charges that they're giving too many tests. "Nobody wants to be test-crazy.... We don't want you to be drones," says Chicago school-board president Gery Chico. But like administrators around the country, he says schools need to face the reality that the status quo, in which thousands of kids languished in the classes with virtually no instructions, couldn't continue. Parents like Jay Rehak, who's also a Whitney Young teacher, worry their kids are suffering for the sake of the system. When his daughter faced her first high-stakes exam two years ago, "she came home panicked every night," he says. But University of Chicago researcher Melissa Roderick, who's followed 100 students at five schools through Chicago's pass-the-test-or-stay-back program, says the get-tough approach is needed, the same way financiers impose harsh, short-term measures to stabilize troubled economies. "The tests are getting us moving," Roderick says. "Over time we'll look to other things."

Perhaps. Or maybe this new breed of exam will become a defining part of school days well into the next century. Most states are only beginning to get their curricula in sync with the new tests, so experts say it will be years before we see whether they deliver improvements dramatic enough to justify the investment. "We're in the middle of the maelstrom - it's very difficult to see which way it's going to go," says Judith Mathers, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. Until then, pencils in hand, we all plunge ahead.

With STEVE RHODES in Chicago, DONNA FOOTE in Los Angeles and ANNE GESALMAN in Houston


Making the Grade: How the States Stack Up in School Reform

In the last decade, reformers have tried to improve the quality by making them more accountable. State politicians are manfating what children should learn in each grade, and meting out rewards and punishments.
A state-by-state comparison:
 
Assessment

Does the state have tests for measuring student achievement?

Report Cards

Does the state have a report card for each of its schools ? 

Ratings:

Does the state assign ratings to schools or identify low-performing schools ?

Rewards:

Does the state provide mone-
tary rewards to successful schools ?

Assistance:

Does the state provide assis-tance to school it names low-performing?

Sanctions:

Can the State close, take over or reconstitute failing schools?

STATES *--->
CATEGORIES
A
A
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K
Y
L
A
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E
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M
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M I
M
N
M
S
M
O
M
T
N
E
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V
N
H
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J
N
M
N
Y
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C
N
D
 O
H
 O
K
 O
R
 P
A
 R
I
S
C
S
D
T
N
T
X
U
T
V
T
V
A
W
A
W
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W I
W
Y
Assessment
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Report Cards
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Ratings
             
     
 
 
             
   
   
           
 
 
 
Rewards                
     
   
   
                 
 
     
 
 
           
Assistance
             
     
 
 
 
         
   
   
           
 
 
 
Sanctions
                     
 
 
 €
 
 
         
   
   
   
   
 
         



 
 
 
 
 

   * Normal Abbreviations of the STATES: Ala.- Alaska - Ariz.-  Ark.- Cal.- Colo. - Conn. -  Del. - Fla. - Ga. - Hawaii - Idaho -
Ill. - Ind. - Iowa - Kan. - Ky.-  La. - Me. - Md. - Mass. - Mich. - Minn. - Miss. - Mo. - Mont. - Nebr. - Nev. - N.H. - N.J. - N.M. - N.Y.-  N.C. - N.D. - Ohio - Okla.- Ore. - Pa.-  R.I. - S.C. - S.D. - Tenn. - Texas - Utah - Vt. - Va.-  Wash. - W.Va. -  Wisc. - Wyo.
 


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