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NCLB Outrages

Schools turn up volume on tests

Ohanian Comment: Sometimes it's way too easy to fake out parents: rigorous homework as evidence of learning. This parent is pleased her children's school has aligned curriculum to fit NCLB, whatever that means. She should worry about federal interference in her children's education. But the parent is only repeating "reassurances" offered by the school. Shame on them for saying, in effect, "The devil made us do it." Read far enough and you'll find one teacher speaking against NCLB, sort of.

Larissa Theodore, Times Staff

This isn't your mom's third grade. Or even your big sister's.

At least, that's how it looks to Dawn Thompson, when she sees her 10- and 8-year-old sons yanking packets of "grueling" math and reading homework out of their backpacks every day. But she's not complaining. Thompson believes the amped-up lessons and rigorous homework show her sons are learning.

"I feel they are doing more than I did as a child, but the results are good," Thompson said.

Her fifth-grade son, Bobby, for instance, tested proficient on the Pennsylvania State System of Assessment tests last year and earned an academic award, she said. Her son Anthony hasn't taken the PSSAs yet, but he and other third-grade classmates will take them for the first time this school year. She's sure he'll do fine, too.

Thompson said she doesn't worry about Anthony because his school, Conway Elementary, has significantly changed curriculum to align with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Enacted in 2002, the controversial law has had a huge impact on how schools around the country plan and execute their lessons.

The law aims to have all students testing as "proficient" on state math and reading exams by 2014, and has high-stakes consequences for those who don't meet the standards. Schools that don't make progress, according to the federal standards, could face sanctions ranging from labels of "failing" or troubled schools to state takeover.

Critics of the law have long complained that the pressure of meeting these testing requirements creates schools that "teach to the test," depriving students of a well-rounded curriculum by sacrificing subjects such as art, sciences or social studies, and judges schools and students by an arbitrary set of guidelines that will not produce true learning and independent thinking.

Local teachers and administrators, however, say that with so much emphasis placed on testing proficient, teaching to these tests is almost a requirement.

For the Freedom Area School District, Superintendent Ron Sofo said it has essentially meant buttressing up test-wise students, which schools are doing with a number of strategies to help close the achievement gap among "subgroups," poor, minority and special-needs children and other students who typically lag behind.

Rochester Area Superintendent Dean Galitsis said teachers are not quite "teaching to the test," in the traditional sense of the catchphrase, because it's not one test at one time, but said teachers are trying to prepare students with actual "real-world applications" so that they can function well on tests.

Ambridge Superintendent Kenneth Voss said there is no question schools are held accountable for student scores and achievement, which has had an effect on the way teachers are handling schoolwork in the district. Subjects such as math and accelerated reading are being drilled into young learners even earlier, so that by the time children reach third grade, when state exams become a requirement, they are better prepared.

Last school year, the state Department of Education tested pupils in grades 3 to 8 and 11 in math and reading, the two subjects that count toward a school's Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, the state's means of measuring compliance with No Child Left Behind.

For elementary pupils, Voss said there is a dedicated time for reading and math. And in other courses, such as science and social studies, reading or math is integrated so that students are picking it up in those classes as well. Ambridge Area met the AYP target as a district and each individual school for the 2005-06 school year.

"Realigning the curriculum is not an event, it's a process," Voss said. "We've been doing this for the past four or five years."

In Freedom Area, it began 10 years ago. Now, everyone in grades 3 to 12 is taking practice exams to measure yearlong growth.

Middle school Principal Bob Gallagher said Freedom Area teachers have revised curriculum and instruction, and are doing more student assessments. He said educators took the "test" out of it and told students to "show us how well you perform."

Low math scores took fifth- and sixth-graders from 35 minutes of math to 90 minutes each day, and cut back on other subjects such as social studies and science. Study halls are no longer the traditional lark-around period where students gossip and make paper airplanes. At the middle school, for example, study hall is now called Study Skills, where coaches work one-on-one or in small groups with struggling students.

"They're so used to it, they're not afraid anymore when the PSSAs come along," Gallagher said.

In Cindy Zeigler's Conway Elementary homeroom, Anthony and other third-graders spend the first part of each morning engaged in a math lesson. Next door in Jeanine Ging's third-grade room, pupils spend the same time reading before they switch. Third-grade pupils have progressed so much, Ging said they are entering her class knowing more than third-graders did four years ago.

When the Freedom district began looking at new ways to increase achievement, Sofo said, they symbolically dumped the old adage of the three R's - Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic - to experiment with another, termed the four R's - Rigor, Relevance, Relationships and Reflection - an idea borrowed from the International Center for Leadership in Education.

Many schools are making use of the rigor-relevance framework to improve performance on state assessments, said Tim Ott, senior vice president of the center.

"The rigor-relevance framework is popular across the country with a lot of different schools, based on the fact that kids learn better and perform better when instruction is academically rigorous and also relevant to the real world," Ott said.

Freedom High School Principal Robert Staub thinks PSSA scores will only get better. Administrators have already taken it a step further, requiring Freedom's high school juniors to score proficiently on the PSSA tests in order to graduate.

Big Knob Elementary School Principal Annette Shrager said they are looking to "master" proficiency. Pupils are tested about every eight weeks because if students are observed growing over time, Shrager said, test scores will follow suit.

Critics, such as Freedom physics teacher Brian Wargo, simply don't like the tests, and worry that the system works to find out what students don't know and then moves on, rather than assessing what students do know and helping them learn what they don't. That's why, in his classroom, students are free to test their own ideas, by coming up with problems and taking a crack at solving them. Wargo said if you teach a student how to problem-solve, he'll naturally make the grade.

Sofo isn't gung-ho about the directive of high-stakes testing either, but knows that No Child Left Behind requirements have to be met, so students should be primed to do well. He does worry that public schools, in the meantime, are losing their way.

"No Child Left Behind can discourage a lot of people. The methods don't respect how kids learn," Sofo said.

The mandates are also stressing a lot of teachers. Galitsis said teachers are concerned they're being rated on how well a kid performs.

But Thompson doesn't mind her sons dealing with a tougher schedule than she faced at their age. "They have plenty of time for other things. They're into sports and they still have time to play."

— Larissa Theodore
Beaver County Times


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