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Spring 2003 Vol. 10. No. 3 Focus on Standardized Tests

In our opinion

The stakes are high

By Kate Nelson on Mar 9, 2003 05:42 PM

By now, we are used to hearing reports that Philadelphia students have again done poorly on standardized tests. These results are consistent with the problems we see in our schools.

From the earliest grades, many students struggle to do reading and math at grade level. More than a quarter of the students don’t even come to school each day at many high schools. About half of Philadelphia students fail to complete high school in four years.

None of these problems with Philadelphia schools should come as a surprise. After all, Philadelphia spends less per student on instruction than all but two of the 63 districts in the surrounding suburban counties. Philadelphia’s class sizes are bigger and teachers are paid less than most suburban counterparts, making it a challenge to retain skilled, experienced teachers. Nurses, counselors, and other critical support personnel are also in short supply. We do not have a system that is equipped to give students all the help they need.

The performance of schools in Philadelphia and other struggling school districts has been under greater scrutiny for several years as a result of a growing, bipartisan national debate about what to do about so-called “failing schools.” Everyone seems to agree that public schools haven’t been held accountable for delivering a high-quality education to all students. However, few in positions of power are prepared to support a massive financial investment to provide a greater “opportunity to learn” in low-performing schools.

With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, standardized tests are the accountability tool-of-choice in both federal and state law. The result in districts like Philadelphia is more testing with higher stakes – and increased pressure for students and schools to perform well on standardized tests.

Increasingly, educators are saying the pressure around standardized test results is interfering with a focus on good instruction.

Foolishly, policymakers consistently disregard the well-established principle that no single test score should determine decisions that will have major impact on a student – and they continue to turn to test scores as the sole or key factor in determining where students will go to high school or whether they will be promoted to the next grade.

Schools are also impacted adversely when great weight is placed on a single test score, instead of using an array of measures to monitor their performance. In Philadelphia schools struggling with limited resources and capacity, staff have been under tremendous pressure to get immediate test score gains. Often they end up being trapped into doing test prep activities instead of enriching their classroom experience – they don’t see ways of getting the scores up quickly besides narrowing the content of their teaching to what they know is on the test.

The recent announcement by CEO Paul Vallas of a new test score-based District promotion policy in 2004 pushes us even further toward having too much weight on one test. For many students, whether they can be promoted from third and eighth grade will boil down to whether they can meet the cutoff on the TerraNova test. But standardized tests are at their least reliable as an assessment tool when used to evaluate an individual student.

Now we can expect that literally thousands of students who can’t reach the requisite score will automatically be held back until they can. One likely result of this pressure is a damaging cycle of prepping kids for the test and retesting – a cycle that is very likely to destroy any remaining interest in learning.

We do not defend social promotion, but we need other strategies besides grade retention with children who are far behind. If the program in third grade didn’t work the first time, we need to do something different – not do it again. And the focus on testing students won’t help matters. “You don’t fatten the pig by weighing it,” as the expression goes.

To avoid retaining huge numbers of students, we need the financial investment that our elected officials shun – put into well-crafted supports for students. Early intervention is critical. We know that good pre-K programs and kindergarten make a difference, but Pennsylvania doesn’t yet fund them. Excellent reading instruction in the early grades is critical, with individual attention for students who need it. Small class size is known to make a difference in educational achievement among young children. Philadelphia schools have begun to address each of these, but there is still far to go.

Extra time, such as summer school or the extended day programs created this year, can be invaluable – but we need to make sure the extra time is actually more learning time and not just more seat time.

Ultimately it comes down to building communities focused on improving the quality of teaching and learning and making sure the students most in need get top-notch teachers and extra supports. With testing season upon us, let us not lose sight of those goals.

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