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When you're put to the test

Ohanian Comment: There's a lot on the line for kids at struggling Hunters Point school. The principal's answer about the value of high stakes testing is part of the problem. Powerful indicator, indeed.

Educators really must stand against testing abuses.

Eons ago I was persuaded to leave the classroom and become part of the Assistant Superintendent in Charge of Curriculum's team. Since I had just been named the district's first Teacher of the Year the previous spring, I naively thought she, new to the district, had chosen me to spread the message about the value of open, multi-grade classrooms and hands-on science projects. Ha. Convinced that teachers knew nothing, the Assistant Superintendent in Charge of Curriculum had a plan to control curriculum through testing. I was put in charge of test distribution and collection--and checking for stray marks on tests.

After two weeks at the new job, I made an appointment with the Superintendent, insisting that the Assistant Superintendent in Charge of Curriculum come along. I told him, "I didn't become a teacher so that I could hand out tests. Find me a teaching job." He sent me to start a new alternative high school--taking charge of kids who had bad histories in the district and with the police, kids the 'regular' high school had banned from their premises.

This was supposed to be a punishment. It was a great job.

Over the next ten years, the Assistant Superintendent in Charge of Curriculum and I had a number of battles. As editor of the union newsletter and because of tenure, I usually got in the last word.


by Heather Knight

As sure as baseball being played at recess and poppies blooming nearby, springtime inside the classrooms at Malcolm X Academy in San Francisco's Hunters Point brings sweaty brows, Scantron sheets and No. 2 pencils worn to their nubs.

It's testing season for public school students around California, but at this struggling school situated among often-violent housing projects, the pressure is especially high.

Asked a few weeks ago whether he'd been thinking much about this year's California Standards Test, which Malcolm X students begin taking today, third grade teacher Dave Mahon sarcastically responded, "The test? Yeah, it's been on my mind."

It's on the minds of just about everyone at the school as they continue their battle to keep Malcolm X alive. The school's test scores will be closely examined by local, state and federal officials -- and if the scores aren't good, the school could be closed or see its entire staff replaced.

"If they don't do well this year, we're back on the chopping block again," said fifth-grade teacher Catherine Schultz. "It's always in the back of your head."

Though the staff knows exactly how important the test results will be, the school's 183 students in kindergarten through fifth grade are generally spared that burden.

Cousins De'Adrian Bryant and Reneil Isaac, both 10-year-old fifth-graders, worked as partners recently to answer practice questions about a passage titled "Digging Up the Past," which discusses archaeological pottery finds. It appeared on a recent state test; many teachers at Malcolm X have been basing their lessons in recent weeks on test questions from previous years to give students practice.

Told by a visitor they will be answering actual test questions for three weeks starting today, the boys could barely fathom it.

"Three weeks!" De'Adrian said. "There are way too many questions, and half of them we don't know. It's frustrating because it feels like the questions never end. It feels like millions of questions, but it isn't."

Asked why the test is important, De'Adrian said, "It teaches you what you don't know."

That part was on the mark, but when asked who will see their tests once they've finished filling in the rows and rows of bubbles, the boys were confused.

"The principal?" De'Adrian asked.

"Our parents?" Reneil asked, his eyes widening.

"The superintendent?" De'Adrian pondered.

"The mayor?" Reneil asked, his eyes widening even more.

They convinced themselves Mayor Gavin Newsom would personally grade their tests at his office in City Hall and would know exactly who San Francisco's brightest children are.

"If you do bad ...," Reneil said.

"He'll be like, 'He's dumb!' " De'Adrian finished.

Told it was actually state and federal government officials who would examine their scores, De'Adrian leaned back in his chair and rolled his eyes as if to signal he never would have guessed that.

Their classmates, similarly, had no idea what would become of their test results.

"They put it in a file or something -- I don't know," guessed Ronnie Curry, 10.

Florence Vaoga, 11, said that her classmates will grade each other's tests and that her teacher will record the scores just for his own information.

Many teachers at Malcolm X surely wish it was that simple.

Like teachers at other public schools around California, they have all watched a state-provided video about how to proctor the test and signed affidavits promising they won't release students' confidential information.

After each morning of testing -- spanning three days a week for two to three weeks, depending on the grade -- a staff member will collect the tests and keep them under lock and key at an undisclosed location in the school.

At the end of testing, staff members will review the tests for any stray pencil marks, which could throw off the mechanical scoring, and will then pack them up so district officials can come collect them. They're then sent to the state to be scored.

The scores will form the basis of the school's rank on the state's Academic Performance Index. The index goes from 200 to 1,000, with 800 considered excellent.

Last year, Malcolm X scored a 620, up from 553 the year before. The state has given Malcolm X a target of an additional nine points for this year, which Malcolm X staff members feel confident their students can meet.

The much more difficult challenge comes from the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act. It gives schools up to 46 targets they must reach on the same state test -- such as ensuring each of their various racial groups separately and as a group score proficient or better in increasingly higher percentages each year.

Last year, 19 percent of those who took the test at Malcolm X were proficient in language arts, and 33 percent were proficient in math. (Kindergartners and first-graders do not take the test.) The federal government required 24.4 percent of students to score proficient last year, meaning the language arts score earned Malcolm X a failing grade. By 2014, 100 percent of public school students in the country will be expected to perform proficiently.

The failure to meet the federal government's targets has meant increased district supervision over Malcolm X. If the school again fails to hit its targets, it will have to undergo "alternative governance," which can mean anything from becoming a charter school to replacing the staff.

An immediate concern, however, is scoring well enough to impress the seven members of San Francisco's Board of Education. They have voted to shut a number of schools in the past couple of years to cope with declining enrollment and will probably shut more next year. Malcolm X has twice narrowly avoided the ax but is perennially at risk.

Rosalind Sarah, the school's principal, said she thinks the high-stakes testing is valuable -- but that it shouldn't be the only marker of a student's progress.

"It's definitely a powerful indicator as to whether they're learning and what might be missing," she said. "Is there a learning disability going on? Are they really getting everything? Are we missing subject areas in our teaching? The assessments are a powerful tool, but it doesn't measure everything about a person's character and their other abilities."

Ron Machado, a district-provided coach for Malcolm X teachers and the school's testing coordinator, said it gets progressively harder in each successive grade level to prepare students for the state test because of the widening gap in academic ability.

By the time students hit fifth grade, he said, some can do algebraic equations while others can't do simple addition without counting on their fingers.

Fourth-grade teacher Heather Rothaus said she's even had students quit their tests midway and start crying.

"The first day, it's 'I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.' By the fourth day, it's 'I don't want to do this,' " she said.

Ten-year-old Ronnie Curry said that's definitely how he feels during the weeks of testing.

"Sometimes, it's fun because you know the answers -- then you start getting really into it," he said, adding that if he hits a tough patch, his mood quickly changes. "I start getting nervous and frustrated.

"It feels like a lot of pressure. It's real serious."

The series

After nearly being closed last year for poor performance, Malcolm X Academy in San Francisco's Hunters Point neighborhood has been given another chance to prove it can do the job. Today's article is one in a series as The Chronicle tracks the school's progress during the 2005-06 school year.

hknight@sfchronicle.com.

— Heather Knight
San Francisco Chronicle
2006-04-25


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