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Topic: PART II: Testing: Full Speed Ahead
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 13,657
Registered: 12/3/04
PART II: Testing: Full Speed Ahead
Posted: Aug 31, 2000 12:39 PM
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*************************************
From Rethinking Schools, Winter, 1999/2000, Volume 14, Number 2, p. 3.
*************************************
THIS IS PART II OF FOUR PARTS
*************************

--- Helping All Students Achieve High Standards. The only
unequivocally positive thing that can be said about this action is
that it mentions that all students must have access to high-quality
instruction.

The section stresses the need for "curriculum and assessments aligned
with standards." ("Alignment" was one of the summit's main buzzwords.
Alas, there was no call for state budget priorities to be "aligned"
with educational needs.) On the surface, aligning curriculum,
assessments, and standards seems logical. The problem, however, is
that because high-stakes tests are driving standards-based reform at
this point, there is a growing danger that curriculum will be geared
toward standardized tests, regardless of what the standards say. This
raises the clear specter of classrooms across the country focusing on
"teaching to the test," and, in the process, narrowing the curriculum
and emphasizing memorization over critical thinking. There is also
the equally important question of who decides the standards and how,
and whether they reflect a multicultural, democratic consensus on
what children should know. Finally, who gets to decide the nature and
content of the assessments?

Similarly, the section calls for professional development programs
"aligned with state standards and tests." How these various
"alignments" play out will be a key area of struggle. Paula DiPerna
president of the Joyce Foundation and a former classroom teacher,
said that while there were several positive developments at the
conference, she was disturbed by, among other things, the tendency to
equate tests with standards. "Tests are a tool and only a tool," she
said. "They must not be the beginning and end of the answer."

Somewhat curiously, this section refers to the parallel and
no-so-hidden agenda of some at the conference: vouchers. "Many of us
believe that choice and competition within public education is both
healthy and desirable," the document said. "Some of us believe that
publicity funded parental choice programs should be extended to
private schools as well." Throughout the summit, there was the sense
that if standards-based reform doesn't work, then vouchers will jump
to the top of the agenda in education reform.

Nowhere does this section mention funding equity or adequate
resources. Instead, in an approach echoed throughout the conference,
schools are told that in place of more money they will be given
"substantial flexibility, freedom, and control over personnel and
resources."

Most disappointing, the document lets the governors off the hook on
redressing the "savage inequalities" in school funding. In fact, in
looking at the various tasks assigned to conference participants in
this section, there is disturbing imbalance.

For their part, the governors are merely asked to "work with their
legislatures and state and local education leaders to strengthen the
quality of standards and assessments, eliminate or waive regulations
that inhibit state and local efforts to help all students meet them,
and initiate or expand charter school programs."

The business community also gets off easy. It's asked to undertake
such arduous tasks as encouraging their employees to volunteer in the
schools and targeting their K-12 grant-making to standards-based
reform.

The only difficult assignment was given to the educators: "to ensure
that virtually all children can read well by third grade and master
the fundamentals of algebra and geometry by the time they enter high
school." There was no mention of how the educators are to fulfill
this responsibility without additional resources and reforms such as
smaller classes.

--- Strengthening Accountability. The heart of the summit's
approach to accountability is a system of "incentives for success and
consequences for failure." Despite the nod toward the carrot of
"incentives," much of the document focused on the stick of
"consequences." The threatening tone of the summit's approach is best
captured in this section's first paragraph: "Accountability is the
cornerstone of standards-based reform. To date, our education system
has operated with few incentives for success and even fewer
consequences for failure. The job security and compensation of
teachers and administrators have, in large measure, been disconnected
from teachers' success in improving student achievement. Students,
except for the relative handful seeking admission to highly selective
colleges and universities, have had little reason to work hard in
high school because access to further education or employment has not
depended on their performance in school. This must change."

Even though vouchers are not to be on the summit's agenda, this
section also makes reference to vouchers, obliquely but unmistakably
offering them as a consequence should standards-based reform fail. If
low-performing schools do not measure up after intervention of extra
help and resources, the document notes, "we will be prepared to
restructure or reconstitute schools or provide parents and students
other options."

Throughout the conference, the consequences for low-performing
students was clear: being held back or denied a diploma. Even at the
conference's end, however, consequences for schools and teachers were
still somewhat vague.

But one powerful political figure, presidential hopeful George W.
Bush, has made clear his view of "rewards and consequences." (George
W. did not attend the conference but brother Jeb, the governor of
Florida, did). In a statement a few days after the summit's end,
George W. said that, if elected president, he would require states to
annually test all students from third through eighth grade in reading
and math as a condition for federal aid. States that showed progress
on test scores would receive bonuses from a $100 million "Achievement
in Education" fund. States that did not show progress would lose 5%
of their federal grants. Earlier, Bush had linked student testing to
vouchers, saying that schools that do not make progress on state
tests would have their Title I money transferred into vouchers for
parents.

WHAT NOW?

How might the summit's standards agenda unfold in coming months? One
indication will emerge when governors present their
"state-of-the-state" speeches at the beginning of next year.

Will money - especially during this era of economic prosperity and
budget surpluses - be forthcoming to improve teacher training, reduce
class sizes, and provide additional resources for low-achieving
schools?

The other key factor, which is beyond the governors' control and
which clearly has summit leaders worried, is how the voting public
will respond.

Of course, in some cases the sheer unworkability of the reforms will
cause them to implode. In San Diego, for instance, a year after the
board banned the promotion of low-achieving eighth-graders to high
school, the "no social promotion" policy was deemed a disaster and
rescinded. The district found that it was unprepared to sufficiently
help, or flunk, the 15% of eighth-graders affected by the policy.

In response to the governors' standards movement, several approaches
(which are not necessarily mutually exclusive) are emerging. For
progressives, the challenge mirrors that facing activists in any
number of social movements. And that is, at a time of conservative
dominance, how does one strike a balance between becoming involved in
and trying to influence conservative reforms and mitigate their worst
tendencies, and yet maintain a strategic, independent perspective
that continues to educate the public to an alternative vision?

Some argue that progressives should concentrate on using the rhetoric
of "high standards for all" to reopen the discussion on "opportunity
to learn standards" (that is, providing sufficient resources and
"opportunities to learn" before instituting across-the-board
expectations for results.) The idea is to use the summit's rhetoric
to push demands for more resources for schools, especially in poor
communities.

Others emphasize the importance of legal action and filing suit
against high-stakes tests on civil rights grounds. In Texas, for
example, a decision is looming in a case by the Mexican American
Legal Defense and Education Fund which argues that the state's
high-stakes exams disproportionately deny diplomas to
African-American and Latino students. A similar discrimination
complaint was recently filed against the Chicago district, whose "no
social promotion" policy has been repeatedly praised by Clinton and
other political leaders.

Many progressive educators emphasize a stance of active resistance
and, where appropriate, of boycotting the tests and adopting a "just
say no" approach. A number of parents, teachers, and students,
particularly in Massachusetts, Illinois, and California, have been
organizing along these lines (see Rethinking School, Spring 1999,
Summer 1999, and Fall 1999 issues.) They have been especially upset
by the grueling nature of the statewide tests and how they distort
and narrow the curriculum. In Massachusetts, for example, the fourth
grade test takes about 14 hours - one hour more than the
Massachusetts bar exam.

As Monty Neill of FairTest argues, "Should you go along with the
dominant definition of reform, or do you fight it if you think it is
an educational disaster? And I think it is an education disaster."

In addition to active resistance, Neill highlights two other
important tasks: to demand better and more authentic methods of
public accountability, and to develop high quality classroom-based
assessments that can help teachers better teach. (FairTest, as part
of the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, recently released
a report advocating a new system of accountability in Massachusetts.
For more information, go to the FairTest website:
http://www.fairtest.org )

Theresa Perry, vice president for community relations at Wheelock
College in Boston, argues that many African-American educators and
parents are leery of a "just say no" approach and worry that the
African-American community can't wait forever for better assessments
to come along. She underscores the need to help African-American
students pass the tests, and to use the tests to redress the chronic
problem of low expectations and sub-standard curriculum for many
African-American students.

"Fundamentally, the only way you can gain access to opportunity is by
passing through these gatekeeping tests," she said. "Unless the tests
are going to go away tomorrow, the real issue is, how do you ... help
poor kids to pass the test?"

"The tests are flawed, but what is the alternative?" she continues.
"And are the white progressives willing to take a stand in their
local community to equalize outcomes?"

Michael Apple, an education policy professor at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, stresses the importance of a dual stance. While
it's important to recognize that the tests are not going to go away
anytime soon, he said, one must still point out "how these things
have worked historically. That is, they exacerbate social problems,
they blame the same students, teachers, and parents who have been
blamed before, and they serve as an excuse not to equalize material
resources."

Apple cautioned that progressives who are opposed to high-stakes
tests must be careful not to allow themselves to be painted as
anti-reform and as defenders of the status quo. "The idea is to think
strategically," he said, "and not to form a rejectionist front that
allows your enemies to position you in a way that makes you even less
powerful."

Asa Hilliard, professor of urban education at Georgia State
University, argues that, "For the segment of the community that
doesn't have power, the worst thing they can do is to drop out of the
game and not take the test," he said. But, he adds, after helping
kids pass the test, "you have to then turn right around and challenge
the tests."

Asked for what's the best way forward, Hilliard summed up the problem
this way: "I don't think there's a magic solution. The problem is,
the people who are advocating the high-stakes tests believe that they
have the solution. And they are going to make consequences based on
that."

How long the governors and corporate leaders will be able to maintain
their system of consequence remains to be seen, however, especially
since their dominant strategy appears to be high-stakes tests and "no
social promotion."

That idea is appealing in the abstract and parents seem to support it
- for now. But what will happen when hundreds of thousands of kids
are flunked or denied a high school dilemma? As C. Thomas Holmes, a
University of Georgia education professor who is a leading researcher
on the topic, notes: "Parents are all for retention, until it's their
kid."
-----------------
Barbara Miner is managing editor of Rethinking Schools. Rethinking
Schools is a non-profit, independent newspaper advocating the reform
of elementary and secondary public schools. Its emphasis is on urban
schools and issues of equity and social justice. It stresses a
grassroots perspective combining theory and practice and linking
classroom issues to broader policy concerns. It is an activist
publication and encourages teachers, parents, and students to become
involved in building quality public schools for all children. It is
published in the Milwaukee area by teachers and educators with
contributing writers from the around the country. Rethinking Schools
focuses on local and national reform. Address: Rethinking Schools,
1001 E. Keefe Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53212; Phone: (414) 964-9646;
Fax: (414) 964-7220; E-mail: rethink@execpc.com ; Subscriptions:
contact RSBusiness@aol.com - subscriptions are $12.50 per year.
*******************************************************
--
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244
E-mail: jbecker@siu.edu



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