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Boot Camp' Drills Primary Pupils for State Test

Ohanian Comment: When you accept the ugly metaphors of high stakes, raising the bar, tests as a battle, then a drill sergeant barking commands and a teacher in camouflage gear are the next logical steps. All notion of nurturing children, school as a place of wonder and discover, is gone. Still I wonder, what could these people be thinking of? Is this the first conditioning step for preparing obedient citizens for the global economy? For ongoing wars?

The drill instructor stared into the sea of fresh young faces and barked out instructions.

"On your feet!" he snarled. "No smiling. I want all eyes straight ahead. No talking while I'm talking. You understand?"

"Yes, sir!"

"You don't call a sergeant sir.' You call a sergeant sergeant.' Is that clear?"

"Yes, sergeant!"

"You all have a tough mission ahead of you. I want you to do your best."

The drill instructor could have been welcoming a bunch of green recruits to boot camp. But this wasn't Camp Lejeune. It was a cold March morning at Cleveland's Oliver Hazard Perry Elementary School. The "drill instructor" was retired Army Sgt. Charles Jones, a Gulf War veteran. And the "recruits" were children, many clad in combat fatigues.

Their "mission": Pass the state tests.

"This is our final week of basic training," said Tequila Pennington-Calwise, the fourth-grade teacher who invited Jones to the school and who donned head-to-toe camouflage fatigues to mark the occasion. "We've worked very hard to pass these tests."

Those tests, which begin today, have been a rite of spring for Ohio youngsters since the early 1990s. But this is an especially good year to invest in the company that makes No. 2 pencils. By April Fools Day, an unprecedented number of the state's 1.8 million public school students will have taken one of the state's proficiency or achievement tests.

Students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 will be tested in one or more subjects this month.

High school sophomores will take the new Ohio Graduation Test -- a test they must pass if they hope to earn a diploma. Meanwhile, juniors and seniors who have not passed the ninth-grade proficiency test -- the old exit exam -- will take it again.

The long shadow of testing even touches students not facing exams this spring. Both Lakewood and Bedford high schools, for instance, are suspending regular class schedules and asking students who aren't being tested to stay away from school until after the exams are completed in the late morning. The reason: ringing bells signaling a change of period and loud commotion in the hallways are thought to be too distracting.

It wasn't always this way.

Ohio lawmakers made sweeping changes in the state's testing in 2001 that included achievement tests to replace proficiency tests in the elementary grades. The two kinds of tests are similar, but achievement tests are directly tied to the state's academic standards.

No Child Left Behind, the far-reaching federal education law, went even further. The 2002 law requires annual testing in reading and math in grades 3-8 and at least once while in high school. Schools must show "average yearly progress" with all students -- black or white, rich or poor, disabled or not disabled -- or be placed on an "improvement" list and face sanctions that can eventually include a complete replacement of staff.

"Unless we figure out how to do a better job of educating groups of children who are currently not succeeding, more and more districts and schools will not make adequate yearly progress," said Joseph Johnson Jr. of the Ohio Department of Education.

While few argue with that goal, some believe the testing explosion has gone too far. In Ohio, officials postponed a plan to implement reading-, math- and writing assessments in kindergarten through second grade after teachers across the state revolted.

Many education researchers say the one-shot, standardized, mostly multiple-choice tests are a relatively inexpensive and efficient way to assess basic skills. But they don't tell the whole picture, said Randy Bennett, a researcher at the Educational Testing Service, the maker of the SAT college entrance exam and many state achievement tests.

"They don't cover all the things one might want to know about a student, and they don't encourage the kind of teaching methods that would help us know those things," Bennett said.

Those worries are more acute with high-stakes exams. Ohio is one of 19 states that requires students to pass a test to graduate, and five more states are phasing in exit exams by 2008. This year's 10th-graders will have to pass the five-part exam to get their high school diploma in 2007. They will get at least six more chances to pass any parts they miss.

Even so, educators are nervous that they will have large numbers of students unable to graduate. The new graduation test, which measures what students should know after 10th grade, is about two grade levels more difficult than the test it replaced. While the old ninth-grade proficiency test was mostly multiple choice, the new exam asks for more short-answer responses.

Dry runs given to sophomores during the last two years produced passage rates so dismal that the State Board of Education lowered the passing score to 41 percent in math and 42 percent in reading. Passing scores for science, social studies and writing will not be established until after the exams are graded this spring.

"Some kids are really prepared and can't wait to take it," said Bedford sophomore Alison Toney. "Other kids feel that they're not prepared."

Few students at Oliver Hazard Perry believe they're not ready for battle. The school, in the Collinwood neighborhood, has improved most of its test scores dramatically over the past three years, mostly because of a strong, experienced teaching staff and an outstanding 99.9 percent attendance rate.

Last week's academic boot camp featured students moving from "fort" to "fort" to work on different skills. The school day was augmented with two nights of two-hour "basic training" sessions at a local library.

"They really want to pass," Principal Stacy Stuhldreher said. "But we also want them to have fun."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

— Scott Stephens
Cleveland Plain Dealer





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