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Birmingham Paper Discusses Testing --without Mentioning Pushed-Out Students

Ohanian Comment: Everyone should write the paper, asking why there's no mention of the WOO 522, students Steve Orel documented were pushed out of the high schools in Birmingham right before the SAT9 was administered. Now, years later, students continue to show up at the WOO, "withdrawal" papers in hand. Why does the Birmingham paper refuse to acknowledge this atrocity? Why do they refuse to acknowledge the remarkable success of WOO students?

You can write the reporter and ask:

Marie Leech: mleech@bhamnews.com
readers' opinions: elard@bhamnews.com
(200 words)

We should also write Gloria Turner, who provides such an inspiring quote about what test scores show her.

Dr. Gloria Turner, Alabama State Department of Education, P. 0. Box 302101, Montgomery, Alabama 36130-2101; (334-242-8038).


Maybe these letters shouldn't be confrontational. The WOO's story is a success story. Since these people haven't visited the WOO, they don't know what extraordinary things happen there. We need to bring it to their attention.

As valedictorian of Spain Park High, senior Mary Kathryn Martin follows the path she hopes one day will lead her to be a world-renowned architect.

She takes college-level classes. She has taken the ACT several times, as well as the SATI and SATII, required for admissions to some universities. She has taken the Alabama High School Graduation Exam, a five-part test all students are required to pass before graduating.

"Between the standardized tests and the testing for your regular classes, it gets to be a bit much," Martin said as she approaches the tail end of her K-12 test-taking days. "Some kids don't even try; they just fill in answers because they know it doesn't affect their grade."

While the tests don't affect students' letter grades, they do provide a snapshot of how schools and school systems perform. And for students planning on college, strong scores on the entrance tests can mean scholarships and other incentives.

State and local school leaders use information from state-administered tests to tailor academic programs and to determine which schools need help in improving student achievement.

Alabama students in grades 3 through 8 are in the middle of one of the busiest testing periods of the year. Both the Stanford Achievement Test and the Alabama Reading and Math Test are being given in most school systems during the first two weeks of April.

Why test?:

Alabama began a systematic program for testing in 1995, when the Legislature passed laws requiring more accountability in schools and school systems. With the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, more emphasis has been placed on the tests that provide state and national comparisons of schools and students.

That law requires stronger accountability in schools. The state must produce annual report cards that inform parents and communities about state and school progress. Schools that do not make progress must provide supplemental services, such as free tutoring or after-school assistance.

Under the law, parents of children at schools that are labeled under-performing have the option to pull their children out of the school and place them at higher-performing schools within the district.

State education officials say the information gained from student testing benefits student development and gives local and state school administrators and the public a gauge on school and school system performance.

In the past, the Stanford Achievement Test had been the primary tool for measuring accountability. But that's about to change.

Gloria Turner, coordinator of student assessment for the State Board of Education, said the Alabama Reading and Math Test is being introduced this year in grades 4, 6 and 8. That test is based on the course of study for those grades, she said.

Beginning this year, the state will calculate the scores from both tests and break them out by poverty, race, gender, disability and limited English fluency.
,br> "If you want some measure to see if your school system is meeting the needs of its students, then I don't see a better option than to test, but it does put pressure on schools," Turner said.

Aside from giving educators a gauge on school performance, the tests have another use in the community.

"Schools sell houses," said Sally Cox, a retired real estate agent. "When I was selling houses, I would always keep an edition of The Birmingham News that listed school test scores. The scores were my selling points."

Teaching to the test:

But the state's rigorous testing schedule has drawn some criticism from educators, who say it is failing students because it leaves teachers no choice but to base instruction on what's being asked on the tests.

The Stanford, in particular, is not based on the state's curriculum, forcing educators to teach information they normally wouldn't, some teachers say.

"Each morning as my students come in, they're given a worksheet with multiple choice questions, and they have to learn how to bubble in their answers," said Sandy Swindall, a third-grade teacher at Meadow View Elementary in Alabaster. "That's not typically how I do things, but this is the first year these babies start taking the Stanford, so we have to start early teaching them how to take it."

The state is constantly criticized for the amount of tests it gives, Turner said.

"We want to reduce testing as much as we can, but then everybody says they want the information that you get from the tests," she said. "We have tried to cut back. High school students used to take the Stanford, but we stopped giving that test to them, and we were very pleased to do that."
>br> Turner said the introduction of the ARMT means more teachers will focus on teaching to the test.

"If teachers teach to the test for ARMT, that's good," Turner said. "That test is based on the content they are required by law to teach."

Jackie Simons, director of instruction for the Mountain Brook School District, said she encourages teachers in the district not to teach what will be on the test.

"We tell them that if they teach the curriculum, it should match up with the test," she said. "There will be a few things on the test that are not covered in the curriculum, but in order to have a bell-shaped curve, you have to have something on the test that all students don't know."

Jo Ann Webb, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education, said testing is the best indicator of a child's progress.

"There have been tests since the first one-room schoolhouse," she said. "It is one of the best ways we know how to determine how a child is doing."

The tests begin:

The testing begins in elementary school, when kindergarten through second-grade students start taking the Diagnostic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS test. The test is given several times to check the progression of students' reading levels.

In third grade, students begin taking the annual Stanford Achievement Test, a nationally normed test that compares students' scores with others across the nation. The test is given through the eighth grade.

Certain grade levels also must take a writing assessment test.

And different kinds of students must take additional tests.

Spanish-speaking children still learning English must have an assessment within the first 12 months of enrollment. For high-achieving students, advanced placement exams are offered in various subjects. Passing an AP test can translate to college credit.

To get into a four-year college, students either take the SAT, an aptitude test, or the ACT and SATII tests, which are subject-matter based.

"It affects the entire school when these tests are being given," said Susan Seng, testing coordinator for Shelby County Schools. "For instance, the graduation exam takes up four days. Even though it's only taken in the morning, the kids still don't have regular work given in the afternoon. The whole school's schedule is affected."

Until 2001, high schoolers took the Stanford as well as the Alabama High School Graduation Exam. However, state officials realized students were being double-tested in the same subjects, so they did away with the Stanford.

Aside from the graduation exam, 10th graders also have to take the Alabama Direct Assessment of Writing, along with fifth- and seventh-graders.

Bert Pitts, clinical psychologist with Homewood-based Grayson and Associates, said children taking tests on a time schedule can experience performance anxiety.

"The kids it's the toughest on often are the kids who struggle in school anyway," he said. "The Stanford is a necessary evil. We have to have some way to judge the effectiveness of our schools."

— Marie Leech
Birmingham News
Readin', Writin' and Takin' Tests




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