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The questionable role of high-stakes testing in North Carolina classrooms

State Sen. Jeanne Lucas is not opposed to standardized tests. The former long-time teacher and school administrator feels such tests, as forms of student assessment, have their place. In fact, Lucas was one of the many legislators last year who voted in favor of the North Carolina Statewide Student Accountability Standards, the latest offshoot of Governor Jim Hunt's ABCs of Public Education reform package. The measure greatly expanded the number and importance of standardized tests in the state's classroom.

It is a vote she now regrets.

"In spite of our efforts to do good, it's created a nightmare," says Lucas. She stresses that "bad things are happening. When we hold children back because of a single test, we are doing something wrong. I was not aware this was going to be the case."

For Lucas, the nightmare is a result of the state's current employment of "high-stakes" testing, or testing used to make critical decisions about a student's worthiness for promotion or graduation. While the standards don't officially kick in until next year, the tests are currently being used on students in the "gateway" grades--third, fifth, and eighth--where they are required to be at grade level in reading and mathematics before they can pass. This past year in Durham, Lucas' home district, 655 students in these three grades alone failed the tests and were retained as a result.

"We've come to know that if you don't pass the test, you don't get promoted," says Lucas, pointing to the large number of test-related constituent complaints her office fielded this year. In one case, an exceptionally gifted student, by all accounts, dropped out of school because he failed an end-of-grade test. In a number of other cases, students with B averages and above were retained.

But prior to fielding these complaints, a personal event would solidify Lucas' disenchantment with the recently adopted standards. This past school year, both of her grandnieces, a third- and fifth-grader at Oak Grove Elementary School in Durham, failed their end-of-grade tests. Both were threatened with retention and given summer school, despite the fact that the fifth-grader was an A and B student who missed passing her reading test by six points. The third-grader--who had struggled in the past and been retained before, but had shown vast improvement once the quantity of her workload was modified--missed her math test by two points.

"When students receive As and Bs, and their parents believe them to be doing well ... in your wildest dreams, no one would ever imagine they would be retained," laments Lucas.

But state public-school superintendent Mike Ward believes that such accounts of students being retained because of a single test are "a myth. It's one measure, and one measure only of student progress." Ward insists the state's policy has "safeguards built into it," ensuring that a number of factors go into promotion decisions. He refers to the policy's stipulation that a student has to meet local school requirements for promotion, and that the student has several opportunities to retake the test.

"Students can take the test up to three times," says Ward, noting that if the student still doesn't pass, he or she can appeal a retention decision to a selected panel of educators.

"I don't care how many times they take it," says Lucas. "They are still basing promotions on a single test. And that is wrong, wrong, wrong."

Students are required to score at "level three or above" (on a scale of one to four) on both the reading and math end-of-grade tests to be regarded as proficient for their grade level. The multiple-choice tests take 110 minutes apiece.

Lucas' youngest niece, who failed the math test three times and had her appeal denied, ended up transferring to a charter school to avoid retention. "There was no way she was going to stay back again," says Sharen McGlothen, mother of the two girls. "I was not about to let her get stigmatized like that. I could see if her grades were bad, but they weren't. It was totally unfair."

McGlothen's fifth-grader passed the test on her third and final attempt, and was promoted to middle school. McGlothen says that her child struggled not because of the content but because "she didn't know how to take tests. She didn't know how to use the process of elimination and she wasn't aware of the time constraints."

"She told me that she thought she had all day," says McGlothen. "So she would go back and start changing her answers before answering the rest of the questions."

Even though both of her children are currently "doing just fine" in their respective grades, McGlothen says the tests took a toll on the youngsters.

"They felt it was just too much pressure," she says. "They would get upset and cry and tell me they didn't want to take the test anymore."

"Students feel much pressure to do well and they don't want to be labeled as stupid, or ostracized by being held back or having to retake the test," says Malcolm Goff, an art teacher at E.K. Powe Elementary in Durham. While proctoring a test last year, Goff saw one frustrated student "repeatedly hitting himself in the head because he couldn't get an answer." Nor is it uncommon, he says, for students to vomit during the tests.

For Lucas, relieving some of this pressure has become a priority. She is currently crafting legislation with two other lawmakers geared toward curbing the state's process of high-stakes testing.

"As legislators, we often ratify laws we think are going to work, but they sometimes don't do what we intended," Lucas explains. "On top of that, bureaucrats want to protect and maintain what they are promoting, regardless if it's working or not." And in this case, says Lucas, "it's not working."

"I don't need to be a senator if I keep my mouth shut and not speak out when I see something is wrong," she says. Lucas goes on to point out the ingrained racial disparities of blanket testing policies. Out of the 655 students retained in the gateway grades in Durham, 565 were black.

"You don't fail the masses," says Lucas. "If you do, it means that it's something we're doing wrong, not them."

Four years ago, educating the masses was the theme of a national summit held in Palisades, N.Y., where President Bill Clinton, the nation's governors and more than 40 business leaders called for "world-class standards" in American education. The summit, arranged by IBM chair Louis Gerstner, streamlined the coordination of national testing standards via a "report card" aimed at boosting scores through incentives and state-by-state comparison. At that time, only 14 states had structured expectations regarding what students needed to know.

Today, an American can scarcely utter the word "education" without also including the terms "standards" and "reform." Forty-nine states now employ a form of centralized educational standards in at least some grades and subjects. Of these 49, more than a third rely on high-stakes testing to determine student promotion to the next grade. This number is likely to increase, especially given that both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates support state-wide testing regimes as a way of boosting academic achievement. In promoting his education agenda, George W. Bush recently declared that "measurement is the cornerstone to reform."

Here in North Carolina, a state nationally touted as a model of educational reform, such measurement is the norm. Under the ABCs, school performance ratings are based on test scores. High-performing schools receive special designations and monetary bonuses for staff, while low-performing institutions are publicly labeled as such, subject to teacher and administrator dismissals and, on occasion, takeover by the state. The recently adopted accountability standards further raised the stakes in a state with an already test-heavy educational agenda.

Proponents, including North Carolina gubernatorial candidates Mike Easley and Richard Vinroot, insist that students have benefited and will continue to do so under test-driven reforms.

"It's clear that student achievement is going up," says State Board of Education Chair Phil Kirk. Kirk points out that North Carolina's students are near or at the national average in reading and math scores, and that things "certainly weren't this way a few years back."

While test scores have consistently risen since the 1996 inception of the ABCs, these improvements appear to be leveling off. Last year, close to 70 percent of the state's students in the third through eighth grades passed their end-of-grade exams, up only 1 percent from the previous year.

But regardless of the rate of improvement, many are concerned with what they believe to be a more important question: Do these improving test scores make for better students?

"The tests are geared toward rote memorization instead of critical- and creative-thinking skills," says MaryBe McMillan, research director for the Common Sense Foundation in Raleigh. The nonprofit organization recently produced a report that, among other things, pointed out how these testing regimens operate at the expense of non-tested subjects like social studies, physical education and art.

Goff says such testing deficiencies are "blatantly obvious. When the end-of-grade test results came back last year, I learned that most of the students who did not pass were my best art students." He characterizes them as "creative, right-brained young people," and insists that standardized tests cannot account for "that kind of thinking."

"One of them went on to attend a science summer camp at Duke that I taught," continues Goff. "She was one of the first students in my class to understand the engineering concept behind tower construction. She made a model in under 15 minutes, and with no explanation of the concept from me. Yet she was held back because of her performance on an end-of-grade test."

Such accounts are puzzling, especially given the mountain of evidence linking retention to discipline and dropout problems among youth.

"Why should we even bother giving kids grades?" asks Lucas, adding that "the equation of common sense has yet to factor in."

But the Common Sense Foundation has factored in. Over the past year, the organization has continuously raised questions about whether these testing policies are truly best for children--or more of an attempted panacea for the commercial interests that drive them. McMillan points out that it's certainly no secret that there is considerable "influence from the business community to promote these standards." Ongoing criticism of the public-school system has allowed for the current "get tough" attitude where schools, teachers and students are being held to a quasi-corporate model of accountability. This is a development, she says, which makes for "good political soundbites, but not for sound educational policies."

Adding fuel to the fire is state board chair Kirk's full-time employment as head of the powerful North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry, the state's largest business lobby. In its recent report, the Common Sense Foundation recommended that the state board change its leadership so that "a career educator rather than a business lobbyist directs education policy."

Kirk calls such notions "ridiculous. Everyone should want students to read and write better, and do better in life.

"Some would like to keep students from doing better," he continues, adding that the state board is "not in that crowd."

However, when holding "public input sessions" on the standards last year, the state board received significant criticism for not being in those crowds either. A number of sessions were held throughout the state to "increase public involvement" in the process. Few board members attended the sessions, causing some to question how the process could make for better students if its main promoters weren't listening to the voices of their parents.

"I went to the session in Raleigh where over 250 people attended," recalls Greg Malhoit, director of the North Carolina Education and Law Project, an advocacy group for at-risk students. Although superintendent Ward did attend, Malhoit points out that "no board members were present. I don't believe that the state board is interested in how parents and teachers feel about these policies, since their voices have largely been cut out."

Kirk bristles at such suggestions.

"What difference does it make?" he asks, regarding the board's absence at the Raleigh gathering. "We had board members who attended some of the other sessions."

"Our board members work full-time jobs," continues Kirk. "Plus, the same things were being said at all the hearings."

The current standards-based reform movement was kicked off 18 years ago with the Reagan Administration's backing of A Nation at Risk, a presidential commission report on American education. This heavily-promoted document declared that there was a crisis, and that education was in need of reform by experts who, unlike educators and parents, understood the changing economy and its demand for a more-literate, better-trained workforce. The proposed cure was a more corporate approach to education that employed standardized testing as a way of measuring student achievement and increasing the accountability of all involved. Though numerous critics have since used achievement data to suggest there was no economy-related "crisis" in education, the wheels of reform churned forward and standardized testing programs were greatly expanded. Or, as nationally acclaimed educator Deborah Meier put it in a recent essay, "whether the crisis was real or imagined, change was required."

But with change comes resistance. Across the nation, battle lines have been drawn over the state-imposed institution of standardized testing. In 1998, parent groups forced the Wisconsin legislature to discontinue the state's graduation tests, even though the policy had already been written into the budget. That same year, parental complaints pushed the Arizona Board of Education to reconsider its state math test after a mere one out of 10 high-school sophomores passed it. Similar actions and lawsuits have been initiated by parents and teachers in other states, including Virginia, Oregon, New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Illinois and California. And U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone

(D-Minnesota), an ardent opponent of high-stakes testing, is currently sponsoring legislation aimed at eliminating the process on a national level.

Here at home, grassroots coalitions of teachers, parents and students opposed to high-stakes policies are surfacing across the state. One of these groups, North Carolina Citizens for Democratic Schools, based in Forsyth County, has more than 100 members.

Teachers are also letting their dissatisfaction be known in other ways. A recent survey conducted by the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), the state's largest teacher organization, revealed that 57 percent of the close to 15,000 teachers polled favored scrapping the current test-based reforms along with their attached monetary bonuses for student achievement. The same survey revealed that 74 percent of these teachers felt the stress level of their students had significantly increased.

Some feel that parental dissatisfaction is bound to increase as well.

"Currently, a lot of parents are still unaware of the impact these policies will have on their children," says Malhoit. "But once the standards officially go into effect next year, the opposition will be galvanized."

East Chapel Hill High School is, by all accounts, a very good school. Its kids, mostly white, suburban and college-bound, excel on standardized tests as indicated by the school's consistently "high-performing" status--an achievement that has brought its top-notch teaching staff $1,500 bonus checks for three years running.

Not a bad deal, except for one thing: A good number of the school's teachers don't want the money. Last year, a foundation was set up for teachers to contribute some or all of their bonus money to charity as a way of helping "more deserving" schools and making a statement against the current testing process. More than $6,000 was collected and donated to a special fund to help schools in Eastern North Carolina flooded as a result of Hurricane Floyd.

For a number of these teachers, demonstrating and speaking out against high-stakes testing is an integral part of protecting education and making better students.

"They don't need to pay me $1,500 a year as some kind of incentive," says Al Baldwin, a history teacher at East Chapel Hill. "My kids do well without it."

The testing-related bonuses provide teachers with "an incentive to not care," says colleague Daniella Cook. The third-year teacher feels that few teachers, if any, are going to "rush to find work at a low-performing school over a high-performing one" given the loss of bonus pay, and the fear of being held accountable for teaching students that don't test well.

"Very few of us are in it for the money," says Cook, noting her meager take-home pay of $1,400 a month. "I firmly believe that every child can learn. But I also believe that you have to give every child the tools to learn before you start penalizing them for not knowing something."

As a part of PACE NC, or People About Change in Education in North Carolina, Cook is one of the growing number of teachers committed to challenging current policy through organizing. This past Saturday, the group hosted the first of a number of community speak-outs on the current testing policies and related issues at the Durham Public Library. Close to 40 teachers, parents and community members from around the Triangle attended.

A number of issues were covered, including the importance of teacher-parent partnerships in opposing the standards. And a commitment was made by members to work with other groups in the Triangle area and beyond with a similar purpose.

"We didn't get here overnight," Cook informed the racially mixed crowd before her. "We were sleeping. And now we have this huge beast in front of us." Because of this, Cook said, "a lot of people feel disempowered right now. So it's time to organize and agitate."

Cook also uses the PACE platform to point out what amounts to hollow rhetoric from the state. "The new line is 'we don't tell teachers to teach to the test,'" she says. "But with high-stakes testing, the bonus is attached to the test, your student's promotion or graduation is attached to the test, the status of your school is attached to the test and the quality of teachers is attached to the tests."

"So how can we not teach to the test?" asks Cook. "That defies common sense."

Fellow teacher and 15-year veteran Bob Brogden agrees. He feels the testing is doing "much more harm than good" for both students and teachers, noting the "disruptive" nature of constantly prepping kids for hundreds of multiple-choice questions spread over a four-day period. "They are slowly strangling those teachers who are creative, energetic and love what they do," he says.

The recent NCAE poll supports Brogden's statements, revealing that 84 percent of the teachers surveyed felt the program damaged morale.

"So many people's spirit is being broken by this process," says Baldwin.

For Cook, the implications of such misguided policies go far beyond the classroom.

"I truly believe that public education is the last bastion of democracy," she says. "And we need to protect it as such." EndBlock

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