Sunday, September 03, 2000

High-stakes state tests raise stress, controversy

By Spencer Hunt, Andrea Tortora and Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

About this series

        At North Avondale Montessori, teachers face a challenge to their very idea of a good education.

        Should they instruct their students in the Montessori method that encourages the child to explore as he learns? Or should they teach the laundry list of facts, formulas and skills needed to pass Ohio Proficiency tests?

        Teacher Elizabeth Wymer says she can't do both.

        That means the alternative education this Cincinnati Public School (CPS) offers is suffering.

        “In CPS the test is the curriculum,” she says. “There definitely are compromises made in my classroom.”

[photo] To Bramble Academy teacher Maria Davis, leading a reading exercise for seventh- and eighth-graders, “The (Ohio proficiency) tests make you more accountable.”
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        Ms. Wymer is among a growing number of teachers, parents, school administrators and even some lawmakers who question the education offered in Ohio's classrooms since the state decreed students must pass proficiency tests. They say the tests, intended to improve academic skills, are making things worse.

        Not since state lawmakers created a test for ninth-graders 13 years ago, has the debate over teaching tactics been so intense or the stakes so high. Next year, fourth-graders must pass the test before they can go onto fifth grade.

        Lawmakers continued to add tests — now given to sixth- and 12th-graders as well. Then they made the tests tougher and longer and put in new rules.

        More than any other test, the fourth-grade reading test has prompted a public backlash that has education officials scrambling.

        Teachers complain they are forced to “teach to the test,” not only to help students pass, but to boost their school's scores on the state's annual report cards.

  Web sites with information about proficiency tests and school standards include:
 • National Center for Fair and Open Testing:
 • Ohio Department of Education:
 • Ohio Department of Education Report Card Site:
 • Ohio Education Association schedule for Sept. 26 statewide proficiency tests forums:
 • Ohio School Boards Association:
 • Sample questions from proficiency tests:
 • Stop Ohio Proficiency Tests:
 — The Associated Press

        Parents say their young children are stressed out, sometimes fainting or vomiting under the high-stakes pressure.

        And last school year, scattered reports of cheating and test tampering also popped up.

        While some parent and teacher groups push lawmakers to ease up, supporters of the tests are just as adamant. They say the tests measure what kids need to know.

        Kathleen Ware, Cincinnati's assistant superintendent, says the tests have forced schools to focus on academic achievement.

        “It's what we should have been doing all along,” she says.

Too much test?
               Most of the controversy centers on the reading test every fourth grader takes in March.

        In 1997, the Ohio Legislature transformed the test from a measuring stick to a barrier. Starting next school year, children who fail to pass the test will be held back.

        Cincinnati school officials estimate that more than half of their fourth-grade students will be held back next year if the “Fourth Grade Guarantee” remains in place. In fact, the district made a pre-emptive strike this summer with mandatory summer school for more than 2,400 second- and third-graders struggling with reading.

        Although she supports tough testing, Ms. Ware says the reading requirement is too tough. She hopes lawmakers will scale it back so more students can pass.

        Across the state, critics predict two out of every five fourth-graders will fail the reading test next year. In March, 54,434 students failed the reading test — about 42 percent of all fourth-graders.

        That is way too much pressure on kids, says Diane Pierson, a mother of two sons and the Western Row Elementary school PTO president.

        “I really don't like this,” she says. “I think they put too much emphasis on these proficiency tests for students at a young age.”

Unhappy teachers
               Kathy Wilder, a fourth grade teacher at Maineville Elementary in the Little Miami School Dis trict, says the tests don't just stress children — they tax teachers, parents and even district officials.

        “My first impression was that the test was going to help us help the child,” Ms. Wilder says. “Now it's too much of a high-stakes test.”

        Schools should have standards, she says, but the scope of the requirements leaves little time to teach anything but what's on the test. In math, for example, fourth-grade students have to achieve 25 different goals.

        “We try to match our curriculum to the state (tests,)” Ms. Wilder says. “If that's how we're going to be judged, that's how we're going to have to teach.”

        At North Avondale school, fourth-grade students are rushed through some Montessori math lessons so they can be prepared for the test.

        For example, Ms. Wymer said fourth-grade Montessori students are supposed to master decimals after they've learned fractions. The test demands that fourth graders know both, so the normal schedule gets juggled.

        A fellow North Avondale teacher, Keith Boehme, says his teaching methods, and his students, are getting shortchanged.

        “In the end, you move from one detail to the next,” he says.

A good tool
               Elsewhere in the Cincinnati district, other teachers say test-inspired changes in their classrooms have made things better.

        Maira Davis, a Bramble Academy teacher, says they have helped sharpen and refocus her teaching skills.

        When her students were found to perform better on math tests, Ms. Davis specialized in the subject, while a colleague focused on language skills.

        “I'm not saying the test should be the only assessment, but I think it's a good tool,” Ms. Davis says. “The tests make you more accountable.”

        The tests also make teachers focus more on certain topics students must know to pass.

        When fellow Bramble Academy teacher Janice Glaspie goes over a reading lesson with her students, she makes sure they know the title, the author, the main idea, the plot and the author's purpose.

        “What has changed is that we really, really focus on it because we know it will be tested,” Ms. Glaspie says. “You feel like they have to be able to do it. They have to be able to respond in writing and explain what all of these things are.”

        In science class, teachers now specialize on the topics they know will be tested.

        “In the past we would go an inch deep and a mile wide,” she said. “Now we want to go a mile deep and a few inches wide.”

Changes considered
               Now lawmakers are considering scaling back the tough requirements they passed just three years ago.

        So many complaints have flowed to legislators, several Republican leaders who supported the tests now appear willing to reverse course.

        State Sen. Robert Gardner, R-Madison and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, wants to shorten the fourth-grade test by eliminating its science and citizenship sections. A bill he plans to introduce also would remove the requirement that would hold back kids who fail the reading test.

        Instead, the results would be used to categorize students as gifted, regular or remedial. Teachers would provide special help to remedial students and hold back only those with extremely low scores.

        Ms. Wilder says Mr. Gardner and his friends should visit her classroom come test time.

        “I would love to have legislators sit through what those 9- and 10-year-olds do and have their scores reported publicly,” she says. “I bet they wouldn't pass the science.”

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