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NCLB Outrages

Some Oregon Teachers Balk at Expanded Student Testing

Deep in the article is a list of states that need to develop 10 or more new tests to meet current NCLB requirements.

SALEM, Ore. Teacher Daniel Jamsa, planning his next couple of weeks of lessons at the Grant Community School in Salem, already knows there will be gaps in the schedule.

The eighth-graders will miss a history lesson so they can take a standardized test.

The seventh-graders will miss a health class or two, also for testing time.

For Jamsa and his fellow teachers and students at Grant, frequent standardized tests are a fact of life, after a decade in which schools have been pushed to test students more often and have been rewarded or penalized based on the results.

The testing stakes are about to get even higher.

Under No Child Left Behind, President Bush's landmark education law, during the 2005-06 school year schools will, for the first time, be required to test students in reading and math every year between third and eighth grades.

Currently, only tests given at selected grades are used to determine a school's overall performance; in Oregon, for example, it's third, fifth, eighth and 10th grades.

The math- and reading-test results are used to determine whether schools are making enough progress each year, in the federal government's eyes. If schools don't make enough gains, they are subject to sanctions ranging from letting students transfer to better-performing schools, to state takeovers.

Adding other grades in Oregon's case, fourth, sixth and seventh to the mix is expected to have a significant effect on public schools across the country, educators and researchers said.
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The most immediate effect probably will be an increase in the number of schools tagged as not making sufficient progress, researchers said, even though numbers are already high: an average of one-third of all schools nationwide.

That's because testing results are broken down by groups of students, including special-education students and those just learning to speak English.

With more students taking the high-stakes tests, the chances are higher that schools will fall below the curve in some subjects, said Brian Gong, executive director of the Dover, N.H.-based National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment.

"People are projecting that as more classes or grades get tested, the number of subgroups not meeting will kick up," Gong said.

Additionally, some schools will have to scramble to put together the infrastructure to test more grades. According to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based nonprofit that analyzes education data from all 50 states, such testing is in place only in about half the states.

States that need to develop 10 or more tests, according to the Denver nonprofit, include Washington, Arizona, Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Vermont, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine, along with the District of Columbia.

The Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan federal budget-analysis office, said it would cost states between $1.9 billion and $5.3 billion between 2002 and 2008 to develop and put all the tests mandated by No Child Left Behind in place.

Gong said the wide range is because some states will use less expensive multiple-choice tests, which can be graded by a computer, while others will use more expensive essay or problem-solving tests that require students to fill in the answers by hand.

As a result, more states may opt for the multiple-choice tests, Gong said, and more schools may focus more on reading and math, knowing that those subjects are to be tested.

"Particularly for the lower-performing schools, they won't be able to attend to the full range of curriculum, because they will want to avoid being identified as not making adequate yearly progress," he said. "It will be interesting to see whether higher-performing schools have broader curriculums."

And if states aren't buying the standardized tests off-the-shelf, instead developing their own to dovetail with existing curriculum, that can be expensive and time-consuming, said Chris Minnich, a test-design-and-implementation specialist with the Oregon Department of Education.

For their part, teachers say the data produced by standardized tests can be valuable.

Donna Williams, a math teacher at Taylor County Middle School in Campbellsville, Ky., said her seventh-grade students will take a math-assessment test for the first time next year, and the data will be helpful.

"I can look at those scores and the areas they fell down in and see what I need to do differently, what I didn't stress enough," she said. "It will make me reflect on my teaching."

But more tests also translate to a loss of precious classroom time, Jamsa and others said, and may take away time for any topic that's not likely to show up on the state's tests as for a 13-year-old student of Jamsa's who is engrossed in building a hydrogen-fuel-cell car.

"The cardinal sin of testing is to teach to the test, and that is all we do right now," said Warren Phillips, a former Time magazine teacher of the year from Plymouth, Mass.

Some of the Oregon teachers at Grant said they will be under extra pressure when the testing in new grades kicks in because the school is on the federal government's list of schools whose students aren't showing enough progress in English and math.

A high percentage of students at Grant, a language-immersion school, are native Spanish speakers, principal Grant Foster said, and it is difficult to get them up to speed as quickly as the federal government wants.

"I think about state benchmarks in everything we do," said Cyndy Canty, who teaches fourth and fifth grades at Grant. "It is constant awareness, constantly on your mind."

— Julia Silverman
Seattle Times


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