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Are More Tests the Correct Answer?

Jesseka Davis vowed last spring to do her best on Missouri's standardized tests, but filling in the ovals became too tedious.

“I was bored. I filled in A, B, C, D,” said the junior at Oak Park High School. “Why try hard on something that doesn't really affect me?”

Davis and her parents, Debi and Greg Davis, say she is a much better student than her standardized test scores show.

“We don't put much stock in them,” Debi Davis said. “I don't think it's an accurate assessment of her skills.”

Fair or not, test scores are how Davis' school and district, North Kansas City, are judged under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. And President Bush wants to expand the three-year-old education law to require more high school testing.

Supporters say more testing would make schools more accountable and ensure that students graduate prepared for the work force.

But some educators think that more testing, instead of improving schools, only would lead to more schools and districts being labeled as low-performing.

“I have some skepticism about whether extending the required assessment into grades nine, 10 and 11 will make a real positive difference,” said Bert Schulte, Missouri deputy education commissioner.

Schulte's counterpart in Kansas, Alexa Posny, noted that the current law will not be implemented completely until next school year, which includes testing third- through eighth-graders every year in both math and reading. Congress should wait to see how full implementation goes before expanding the law, she said.

“We have no evidence to support that this is what we need to be doing,” Posny said of more high school testing. “It is putting the cart before the horse.”

Surveys of students in Kansas public schools show that more than 90 percent give their best effort on the state tests, Posny said. But she knows that some do not, including one student who told her he had filled in his answers in the shape of a pine tree.

Under the federal education law, high school students currently are tested once in reading and once in math — generally in 10th and 11th grades. Under Bush's proposal, every public high school would test in both subjects in ninth, 10th and 11th grades. Those scores would count toward low-performing labels for any school and toward sanctions at those schools and districts that get federal funds for disadvantaged students.

Also, seniors would take a national standardized test at least every other year.

The superintendents of the Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., districts agree that high schools need more attention, but they do not think more testing is the answer.

Kansas City, Kan., Superintendent Ray Daniels said his district gave up federal Title I funds for disadvantaged students at its high schools largely to avoid the No Child Left Behind sanctions. Daniels said he thinks more high schools would do the same if more testing is required.

Kansas City Superintendent Bernard Taylor Jr. said that if high school students were tested every year in math and reading, electives would be squeezed out.

“More and more, test scores are defining a student's capabilities,” Taylor said. “I think you are going to start seeing a backlash to all of this and people saying, ‘Enough is enough.' ”

Area students offered a mixed response to the idea of more standardized tests. Most say college entrance exams concern them far more than state tests.

Whitney Van Way, a sophomore at Shawnee Mission East High School, and her mother, Gail Van Way, support more high school testing. Whitney said it would provide needed practice for college entrance exams.

With the extra testing, Gail Van Way said, “people will be able to (better) compare schools.”

In the Kansas City district, several Northeast High School students said they did not care one way or the other about additional tests. But others said extra testing would force inner-city districts to do a better job of educating their students.

“I want to know if I'm at the same level as everybody else,” senior Kieu Tran said.

But Shawnee Mission East sophomore Aishlinn O'Connor said teachers spend so much time prepping students for state tests that learning is neglected. Aishlinn said she would like for Kansas to return its federal funds until Congress “actually funds the mandates” of the No Child Left Behind law.

“They have made all these empty promises,” she said. “They have not set realistic expectations.”

No Child Left Behind drew bipartisan support in 2001 as Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, worked closely with the Bush administration and other Republican leaders to draft the legislation. But now, Kennedy and other critics say Bush has failed to fully fund the law's mandates — a claim the administration denies.

Spending for Title I — the cornerstone of funding for the No Child Left Behind Act — has risen from $8.8 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $12.7 billion for the current fiscal year. However, critics say this is far below the $20.5 billion that was authorized for the current fiscal year when Congress approved the law.

In his speech last month announcing the proposal, Bush said he has heard every excuse not to test.

“My answer is: How do you know if a child is learning if you don't test? We've got money in the budget to help the states implement the tests. There should be no excuse saying, ‘Well, it's an unfunded mandate.' Forget it. It will be funded,” Bush said. “Testing in high schools will make sure that our children are employable for the jobs of the 21st century. Testing will allow teachers to improve their classes.”

William Miles, director of policy for the Public Education Network, a public school advocacy group, said No Child Left Behind needed to go further to ensure that all students graduate. He said extra testing would be a good start toward this goal, and an additional focus on high school students should begin immediately.

But other supporters of the law have been circumspect when asked about additional testing.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. John Boehner, an Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, said he could not comment because Boehner had not seen the details.

“However, the chairman believes what President Bush has outlined so far is likely to spark a healthy debate in Congress,” Josh Holly said.

Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, helped guide the legislation through the House. He said recently that Bush had lost credibility on education and his proposal faces stiff resistance.

“Given that the president has underfunded No Child Left Behind … how he would pay for high school testing is obviously an important detail,” said Thomas Kiley, a spokesman for Miller. “President Bush has offered big proposals before that he never seriously followed up on — his announcement in last year's State of the Union that we were going to Mars. We'll have to wait and see if this is another one of those.”

To reach DeAnn Smith, education reporter, call (816) 234-4412 or send e-mail to dsmith@kcstar.com.
Highlights of Bush's plan

President Bush's education plan would expand the No Child Left Behind Act to include more testing in high schools. Bush proposed an additional $1.5 billion in federal spending for high schools, including:

• $500 million in incentives to states and districts to reward teachers who raise test scores in low-income schools. About 100,000 teachers would get $5,000 bonuses.

• $250 million to states to develop additional standardized tests for high schools.

• $269 million for a partnership among states, school districts and universities to strengthen the teaching of math and science.

• $200 million to improve the literacy skills of high school students who read below grade level.

• $52 million to ensure that teachers in schools with many low-income students are trained to teach advanced placement and international baccalaureate courses.

• $45 million to encourage students to take more rigorous high school courses.

• $120 million to train teachers to do better at teaching math.
First glance

• Supporters say requiring more testing under the federal No Child Left Behind Act would make schools more accountable and ensure that students graduate prepared for the work force.

• Some educators think that more testing, instead of improving schools, would lead to more schools and districts being labeled as low-performing
First glance

• Supporters say requiring more testing under the federal No Child Left Behind Act would make schools more accountable and ensure that students graduate prepared for the work force.

— Deann Smith
Kansas City Star


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