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NCLB Outrages

Verdict still out on value of CSAP

The subhead of this article reads With the 10th year of scores due this week, it's hard to tell just how much the tests have achieved. Kudos to the teachers who were willing to speak out about the negative effects of the relentless testing--and put their names to it. Unless and until this happens, Standardistos win.

This note from the Colorado State Department of Education:

Cole was not converted to a charter school because of NCLB. It was a change that occurred because of state law. The school had been Unsatisfactory on the SAR for three consecutive years.

While NCLB does allow for schools to be converted to charters, it does not require that to happen. The Colorado Department of Education will not require schools to convert to charters under NCLB. If that ever happens, it would be a district decision.


By Robert Sanchez, Allison Sherry and Karen Rouse

Nine years ago, 52,500 fourth- graders in 810 schools piled into classrooms across the state, wrote a story about a cat searching for a home, and launched the Colorado Student Assessment Program.

Today, experts say a decade of test results still don't tell them definitively whether Colorado's students are learning more.

Over the years, as more exams have been added, the percentage of students scoring at grade level or better has slowly increased in most subjects. The yearly data, which will be released for the 10th time Thursday, have also forced public educators to confront wide gaps in achievement between white and minority students.

At the same time, they worry that the tests don't reward student creativity or allow for teaching subjects outside the state standards that guide the tests.

Barely a third of those children taking the first-ever CSAP exam could put together a well- conceived paragraph on the feline or other topics, leading then- Gov. Roy Romer to tell his education secretary, "I knew it would be bad, but I didn't think it was going to be this bad."

More than 450,000 children in eight grades now take CSAP tests, one of the first government-mandated testing programs in the nation and a forerunner to the federal No Child Left Behind law designed to highlight and correct shortcomings in public education.

While No Child Left Behind has changed the way families and educators look at their public schools, the $15 million-a- year Colorado assessment program has also profoundly changed how schools operate.

Because of CSAP tests and the subsequent release of data to the public each year through state-mandated School Accountability Reports, schools have closed, parents have more freedom to pull children from underperforming schools, principals more closely review their teachers' lessons plans, and superintendents feel more pressure than ever to perform or leave.

Overall, there's an intense focus on the tests, which are typically given over several days in late winter in every public school in the state.

"In February, I shut down for a week and do testing preparation," said Bruce Morgan, a fourth-grade teacher at Castle Rock Elementary School in the traditionally high-performing Douglas County School District. "It's sheer panic."

Lots riding on results

The high-stakes weight of the CSAP has given new meaning to testing in Colorado, where one school's consistently low scores over four years can close the school and cause an entire district to lose money. The state Department of Education converted Denver's Cole Middle School to a charter school in 2004, costing the district nearly $6,600 a student in state funds.

Across Colorado, teachers and administrators say the CSAP's effect has been mixed.

While teachers say it's good that they have had to focus more on minority children and low-income families to improve overall class scores, they argue that they have been pushed toward a CSAP-only vision and have cut time from art, music and physical education.

The result, some teachers say, is schools are turning out less-well-rounded students.

"They're not getting a broad education," said Jenny Rasmussen, a veteran fourth- and fifth- grade teacher in Denver. "It's hard to be creative when you have a book telling you what to do."

Testing experts, too, have argued that the CSAP exams are an imperfect measurement of student aptitude because they only test a child's knowledge on a given day, scores are arbitrary and the CSAP doesn't account for progress students make from grade to grade.

"The CSAP results are an unreliable indicator of achievement," says Ernie House, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado who has studied assessment exams. "What you have are children who do well in some subjects, but the success has come at the expense of others."

The idea of back-to-basics curriculum in schools has brewed for three decades after studies indicated that other nations were becoming more competitive in the global workforce.

Amid the worry, Colorado legislators in 1993 passed a law requiring public schools to create standards and evaluate student performance in basic subjects.

Four years later, fourth- graders took the first CSAP tests in reading and writing and were rated advanced, proficient, partially proficient or unsatisfactory in those subjects.

The scores then were used to rate schools as part of a report card sent to parents.

"Obviously when we began (CSAP), we wanted to find some authentic measure of progress," said Romer, who was part of the testing movement.

Tests are multiplying

Today, the CSAP has expanded from two tests to 27.

Every class from the third to 10th grade is tested in reading, writing and mathematics. Fifth- and 10th-graders took science exams for the first time this year, joining the eighth-grade class.

The testing proliferation so far has pressed superintendents and principals to look for new teaching methods. Districts statewide have hired assessment advisers, re-evaluated class time and told teachers to talk freely among one another about certain students' classroom struggles.

"Today the teacher is very focused and has a plan on what to do," said Sandy Gecewicz, assistant superintendent for the Pueblo School District. "The teacher knows my data, (and) they aren't guessing ... weaknesses. It's very specific."

Small districts from northwestern and southeastern Colorado eventually began comparing scores and teaching methods, while Denver Public Schools offered incentive-laden contracts to teachers who took assignments in low-performing classrooms, often packed with poor, minority students.

Other positive results are seen statewide.

At Columbian Elementary School in Pueblo, Karen Ortiz asked teachers to give weekly reading assessments to children, and the school added music and physical education classes after- hours to make up for time lost during the day.

Columbian also keeps a dossier on every child's scores, including academic strengths and weaknesses.

"CSAP made us focus," said Ortiz, whose school has steadily increased writing and reading scores despite having 90 percent of 350 students living in or near poverty. "It made it OK for a teacher to say, 'I don't know the best way to do this, and I need help."'

At Pioneer Elementary School in Parker, CSAP data showed that students scored the lowest on portions of the tests that required short, written answers. Teachers the next year put more emphasis on short writing in classrooms, which brought up scores.

And in the Akron School District on the Eastern Plains, Superintendent Bryce Monasmith said teachers are asking more questions about CSAP findings and how research methods can be used to evaluate textbooks.

"We're constantly looking at how new materials are going to help us," Monasmith said.

But CSAP data today don't completely support the claim that the changes have boosted most children. Even with more intense study of math, for example, students have shown only modest progress over the years, and fewer students are proficient or advanced in the subject as they get older.

By way of comparison, a decade of results from the Scholastic Aptitude Test, a popular college-entrance exam, indicates that the state's college- bound students have also improved only marginally, though Colorado for decades has scored above the nationwide average on the SAT.

Focus on individuals

The potential of the test hasn't been fully exploited, though. The test could be used to tell educators more about individual students and help them improve, said Richard Figueroa, an education professor at the University of California, Davis.

Last year, the state began to track students individually as they progress through the Colorado system. The program, in part, was designed to help schools track highly mobile minority groups, especially Latino immigrants.

State Department of Education officials say it's all part of a plan to emphasize individual students as well as schools. Soon, they say, all districts will have customized plans for students that address everything from the reading skills of a Spanish-speaking child to a top student's aptitude in poetry.

"Instead of saying, for example, that you're black and you're a girl and this is what the formulas say for how you perform, ... we can strip her of her traditional groupings and look at her as a person," said Jo O'Brien, assistant to the state's education commissioner. "It's almost liberating."

Computer-assisted reporting editor Jeffrey A. Roberts contributed to this report.

— Robert Sanchez, Allison Sherry and Karen Rouse
Denver Post
2006-07-30


INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES


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