Tests may imperil electives
This story is, of course, being repeated around the country.
By Liz F. Kay
With many Maryland students set to take tests beginning today that they'll need to pass in order to graduate, school systems in the area are once again ratcheting up their instruction of reading and math - at the expense, some warn, of subjects designed to produce well-rounded students.
In the fall, Baltimore County schools will require some students to spend twice as much classroom time on reading. The county school system would join Baltimore City and area counties that have added classes to help students who, starting with the Class of 2009, must pass tests in algebra and reading to earn a diploma.
But some worry that these moves, coming on top of previous responses to high-stakes testing on core academic subjects, will further limit the availability of classes in subjects such as art, music and foreign language.
"We know that students are interested in school more if they can take classes in the arts and electives," said Baltimore County teachers union President Cheryl Bost, who said some art and family studies teachers have already told her their positions were cut. She said she and her members recognize the importance of reading and math but added that some students might be frustrated by the changes.
"What message does it send to a child who is a great artist and is not good in language? That you need to come to school each day, and the subject you thrive in, you'll have once a week?"
This year's ninth-graders are the first who will have to pass four exit exams to graduate: English, algebra, U.S. government and biology. Results of the English and algebra High School Assessments also will be used to gauge whether schools are making the grade under the No Child Left Behind law.
Freshmen and other students will take the tests this week. Children in middle school who take algebra also will be tested in that subject and will meet the graduation requirement by passing. High school sophomores, juniors and seniors have to sit for the test to graduate but do not have to pass to receive their diplomas.
Anne Arundel County schools added algebra and reading time this year. Baltimore City's neighborhood high schools have been doubling up those subjects for the past two years. Next fall in Baltimore, all high schools except the four making "adequate yearly progress" under the No Child Left Behind law will give students double periods of biology and U.S. government, said Frank DeStefano, deputy chief academic officer.
Howard County schools have for years staffed freshman English and algebra intervention classes at seven high schools, said Clarissa Evans, executive director for secondary curricular programs. This year, school officials hope to expand to other Howard schools.
Carroll County has algebra support classes and has budgeted for more teachers for those programs. Harford County will offer students a "strategic reading" course next year, and some students will have English and algebra every day, said intervention specialist Susan Brown.
High school leaders across the country have also noted that what's being taught is being tailored toward standardized tests, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a research group that studies testing. The center has conducted surveys of elementary school administrators that confirm this is happening in the younger grades, he said.
Schools at all levels seem to struggle to keep from reducing electives, he said.
"It's a price I'm sure that's being paid to some extent," he said. "If the problem is that high school kids don't know how to read well enough, don't know their math well enough, and if high school is catching them up, there's logically going to be a squeeze on somebody."
Students also will miss out on electives if they continually fail courses or drop out, said Janice Ollarvia of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Arlen Liverman, Anne Arundel's director of high schools, called scheduling "a balancing act," adding: "If you add to one area, you take away from others, but we try to protect the integrity of those programs."
Baltimore County schools spokeswoman Kara Calder said the district has included additional teaching positions in its budget to reduce the effect on electives by adding language classes. Principals might have to be creative when assigning teachers and scheduling students, she said, adding that some children might not take an elective in the same year that an older sibling did.
"The main objective is to really try when possible to minimize the disruption to the availability of classes for students," Calder said.
Baltimore County schools have offered enhanced algebra instruction for several years. Last year, about half of Baltimore County sophomores passed the English High School Assessment. Baltimore County school officials looked at state test scores, consulted schools and used a placement test to identify students in grades six through 10 who should receive additional help in reading next fall, said acting Assistant Superintendent Kathleen McMahon.
An estimated 8,400 of these students will take an hour and a half of Language!, a reading, language arts and writing curriculum. Students are expected to eventually enroll in regular classes. The county school board has approved an initial $3 million to purchase the curriculum; it's expected to cost $5.4 million over five years, according to school board documents.
The county's proposed budget includes $1.01 million for 15 additional reading intervention teachers for high schools and about 10 middle school positions. The school system has also redirected 10 instructional positions so every high school will have an additional reading specialist, officials said. Middle schools that receive federal Title I funds will also receive nine reading positions among them.
Positions were not cut at schools where many students need help with reading, Bost, the teachers union president, said. However, she said, students in the program won't have time to take electives. Principals are left to redirect some positions to departments where they're needed, leaving fewer teachers for electives - and larger class sizes.
Timonium parent Mary Pat Kahle told the county school board at a recent meeting that she was concerned about the fate of electives with plans to enroll struggling students in additional reading classes.
"The combination of less demand [for electives] and greater need somewhere else - I don't see how that won't create a staffing problem," she said.
Sun reporter Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.
Liz F. Kay
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES