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Tests don't show school progress, teachers say

Ohanian Comment: If you went to the newspaper article, you'd see a classroom of young black students, all in uniform, sitting at their desks. It is somehow a very depressing picture. . . and a window into what's really going on here. The picture caption reads that the teacher her fourth grade class instructions for their class activity at Hawkins Elementary School.
Activity? They're all staring at the textbook page.

You can see sample test items from the CTB McGraw-Hill test. Try this one:

Which word from the story is a possessive:

a) I'm
b) it's
c) I'll
d) its

As a longtime teacher, I know that the ability to distinguish linguistically between plurality and possession is a sophisticated skill. Children often grab on to the apostrophe as a clue. But of course here the apostophe just leads them astray. And what does such a grammatical question have to do with reading skill?

Here's another question from the test.

What does the poem mean when it says that the sun "pours in like a lemonade stream?"

a) The sun is not very hot.
b) Sunlight is making the girl thirsty.
c) The sun looks like a piece of fruit.
d) Yellow sunbeams are coming in the window.

Once again we see that reading comprehension questions on these tests are never written from a child's perspective.

You'll find lots more on this sample test that's at best problemmatic and at worst unspeakable.

By Nancy Kaffer

Test time is always tense.

But at Hawkins Elementary School in Hattiesburg, the stakes are especially high - Hawkins is the only school in Forrest and Lamar counties that isn't making adequate yearly progress.

In layman's terms, that means not enough Hawkins students were rated proficient at language, reading or math skills on last year's standardized Mississippi Curriculum Test.

Under 2002's No Child Left Behind Act, Hawkins has entered the "school improvement cycle," which requires the school to offer students special tutoring, programs - and the opportunity to transfer to other schools in the city school district.

Parent Alexandria Redeemer never considered putting her sixth-grader in another school.

"I feel education is based on each individual child," Redeemer said. "I felt you should not base the rank on school as a whole. You have to give the school a chance and you have to get out and participate."

No Child Left Behind, a federal law designed to increase student performance through school accountability, has changed a lot about the way schools are ranked and the way students are expected to perform.

Local educators say the act has brought some improvements to school performance in its encouragement to focus on the success of individual children.

But many criticize the act's reliance on annual standardized testing as the only gauge for a school's quality and the requirement that all students attain MCT scores considered proficient by 2014.

"In business and industry, the bottom line was profits and revenues," said Petal School Superintendent James Hutto. "In our business, the bottom lines are test results."

That, Hattiesburg Superintendent Annie Wimbish said, does students a disservice. Testing, she said, "is a surface kind of thing, that doesn't take into account the learning a child has accomplished over the year."

"I believe in accountability, but I believe the assessment piece (of No Child Left Behind) is warped," Wimbish said. "It's one test, one day, one shot at measuring what people have learned."

Assessment, said Forrest County Assistant Superintendent Debbie Burt, should be a year-long process.

"Most teachers use a variety of assessments," Burt said. "Good teachers constantly assess their students. For No Child Left Behind to place all the emphasis (for each proficiency category) on a single test given on a single day ... there are too many variables."

Even state rankings take more than test scores into account -a school's ranking is based on raw test scores, and is adjusted to reflect how far the school has come toward meeting its goals for growth.

No Child Left Behind breaks down test scores using subgroups like race, ethnicity and economic background. Failure in just one subgroup or subject means a school hasn't made adequate yearly progress.

Another provision of No Child Left Behind, one that requires special education and students who are learning English to be tested on grade level, has also drawn fire from local educators.

This is the first year such testing has been required, and some fear it will lower the proficiency rating of schools with substantial English language learners or special education populations.

But even when students don't face those kinds of challenges, Hutto said, standardized test results can be misleading.

"Not all of us work at the same rate," Hutto said. "If two people were going to learn to fly an airplane, it might take different lengths of time. The skills don't change, they're the constant. Time is the variable."

In education, Hutto said, it's the other way around.

"But the standards need to be the constant and time needs to be the variable," Hutto said.

When test results are given so much importance, Wimbish said, it's easy to focus on scores at the expense of a district's other work.

"No Child Left Behind forces us to think about what will the results show," Wimbish said. "Personally, I think it really pushes us to look beyond the whole child and focus on those tested areas. And that's not the business we're in. We're in the business of developing people."

That's especially important in a district like Hattiesburg, Wimbish said, where 88 percent of students live in poverty. At Hawkins Elementary, Principal Margie Willis said about 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch - the yardstick by which schools track poverty levels.

About 62 percent of Forrest County public school students live in poverty, said Superintendent Kay Clay, with much higher percentages at schools like Earl Travillion Elementary School where about 98 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

"Children who live in poverty don't have the experiences that a more affluent parent can provide," Clay said.

Children who live in poverty often don't come to school with the basic knowledge and skills that children from more affluent homes can draw on, Clay said.

Such students face a disadvantage in the classroom - and on standardized tests, Wimbish said.

"I think that would just be common knowledge - that if a child comes in with less experience, they'll need more help." Wimbish said.

Willis puts it simply: "Our children come with a lot of baggage."

Educators say they'd like all students to achieve proficiency by 2014, but many say that goal isn't realistic.

"Each generation will always bring new challenges," Clay said.

No Child Left Behind is expected to face re-authorization by Congress in 2007.

And Hattiesburg Curriculum Director Lisa Smith said she expects some elements of the bill to be adjusted - like the 100 percent proficiency requirement, the testing requirements for non-English speaking or learning disabled students.

"Is it a perfect law? No. Does it need to be tweaked? Yes. But it is the right law for children," Smith said.

All children, Smith believes, can reach a degree of proficiency - but proficiency may have different meanings for different children.

For many teachers, No Child Left Behind changes in the classroom have been minimal, said Karen Vines, an 18-year veteran of Mississippi's public schools.

"We're just making a more concerted effort by putting it into a plan," Vines said. "We work on those skills all year long, so there's a lot of remediation. Even if a student is doing well, we look for areas to improve."

Lamar County School Superintendent Glenn Swan said his district has seen a decrease in referrals to special education, from 28 the year before to three this school year.

Swan attributes this is in part to proactive action taken by educators to ensure that children don't fall behind.

And Hawkins' school improvement cycle, Willis said, is producing good results. With the help of paid tutors and afterschool programs, Willis said she's seen improvements at her school

"It has made us all work together," Willis said. "The accountability is there. We can't just sit back and see what happens, we have to work for it. We've opened our doors. We realize we're in this thing together, and not an isolated field."

And she has high hopes for this year's test scores.

"The children are pumped up," Willis said last week. "I've been hearing positive things from them, we're pumped up, and we're hoping that hard work pays off."

Originally published May 14, 2006
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RYAN MOORE | Hattiesburg American

Karen Coney gives her fourth grade class instructions for their class activity at Hawkins Elementary School.

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Hattiesburg American


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