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NCLB Outrages

In R.I. schools, October dominated by standardized testing

Ohanian Comment: Why does a parent who sees his daughter getting so upset permit this to continue?

Don't teachers who see what they're doing to children know it is unprofessional behavior that ice cream can't make up for?

Who is taking care of the children?

Clearly, RI State Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist has swallowed way too much of the Business Roundtable/Gates/Broad/US DOE Kool-Aid: "[Parents] should be very, very focused about making sure their child is partially proficient. she says. Because if they aren't, that's a concern for what it means in the future."

And more.

She claims a teacher background--plus a masterâs degree in public administration from Harvard and position as Washington, D.C.'s "state education officer." According to her bio, Gist has flown in an F-18 fighter jet with the Blue Angels, run the New York City Marathon, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and broken a Guinness Record for kissing.

She has also drunk way too much corporate Kool-Aid.

And of course, after Kilimanjaro, there was the Broad Foundation.

In 2007, Gist was accepted into a prestigious national educational leadership program run by the Los Angeles-based Broad Center, where she excelled, said Tim Quinn, managing director of the program.

Out of 500 applicants, Gist was one of a dozen selected for the 10-month program that brings together future leaders over long weekends of classes and seminars. Participants are trained to become superintendents in school districts that have large numbers of low-income and minority students. Providence Schools Supt. Tom Brady is another graduate of the Broad program.

"She distinguished herself among those in the program as someone who is extremely knowledgeable and understands issues and education reform from a state and national perspective,â Quinn said. "I think she will be very clear about vision and mission and she will definitely be results-oriented. And she has off-the-charts interpersonal skills. She will bring people along with her."

And why do people say that NCLB was written with "the best intentions?" It was an outgrowth of the Business Roundtable agenda of the late 1980's and the intentions toward public schools were not at all good. It's one of those phrases that rolls off the tongue so easily--and is an absolute lie. Try reading Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? by Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian.

By Linda Borg

Olivia McMahon, of Lincoln, a fourth grader, works on a math problem with her older sister, Maggie, in preparation for the NECAP test. Their father, Tim McMahon, left, says students donât always understand that the tests are designed to measure their performance in groups, not individually.

The Providence Journal / Glenn Osmundson

Fourth-grader Olivia McMahon was a nervous wreck. The annual statewide assessment tests were beginning the following day, and her school in Lincoln had sent her home with a punchlist of do's and don't's.

"Daddy, listen. I have to get to bed early tonight. I need to have a good meal for dinner. And tomorrow morning, can you get up early and make me a special breakfast? Like eggs with toast and peanut butter?"

Her father, Tim McMahon, thought Olivia's anxiety was touching. He did his part and made her a special breakfast. But before she left to catch the bus, Olivia ran into the bathroom and began crying. On her way to school, she broke down twice.

When he picked Olivia up from school Tuesday, she told him, "The adrenalin was caged inside me and my hands were shaking."

Her friend, she said, felt the same way.

McMahon says he understands the need to test students on what they know. He simply wishes that schools could explain to children that the test is not a judgment of their performance but a way of measuring how well children are mastering certain subjects.

For the first three weeks of October, 75,000 public school students from Westerly to Woonsocket will be taking the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), a standardized test introduced in 2005 to measure what students know in math, English and writing. (The science test is administered separately in the spring.)

To say that the NECAP dominates the month of October in the stateâs classrooms would be an understatement. Teachers in many schools begin prepping students for the test weeks in advance by giving them sample questions. In the days leading up to the tests, some schools hold pep rallies; others barrage parents with e-mails and phone messages while other schools hold special assemblies to explain the importance of the assessment and what it means for the school's statewide ranking.

Everyone, from parents to principals, agrees that the October testing cycle is stressful. And some wonder whether the growing national mania for standardized testing is subverting the very things it was designed to accomplish: provide teachers with meaningful data on how well their students are doing.

The volume of standardized testing has doubled and possibly tripled since the federal No Child Left Behind law was introduced about 10 years ago.

"At worst, schools have become little more than test-prep factories," says Robert Schaeffer, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a group critical of standardized tests. "Entire curriculums are wrapped around test prep, narrowing the curriculum."

And, he says, the children who most need a rich education -- those who are poor, urban or English language learners -- often get little more than "a thin gruel" of test preparation in their classes, a far cry from the intellectually stimulating coursework offered by private schools, which do very little standardized testing.

Those who wrote No Child Left Behind had the best intentions: to hold teachers and schools accountable for getting all students to high standards. But under the federal law the sanctions quickly became punitive. Schools and districts were classified as "high performing" or âlow performing.â Low-performing schools faced increasingly harsh consequences that could even include state takeover.

The consequences are about to become a lot tougher for high school students. Many states are making tests like the NECAP a requirement for high school graduation. In Rhode Island, this yearâs juniors must score at least partially proficient on the NECAP if they want to graduate in 2012.

It's no wonder parents are nervous.

"We need a more compassionate way of assessing kids," says Lizzie Araujo Haller, who sits on the PTO at Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School in Providence. "School should be more than a grind and testing should be about more than results."

Haller was so concerned about the pressure wrought by NECAP testing that she organized a series of fun activities at King Elementary. During the testing days, students will get an extra 30 minutes of recess to blow off steam, play games or watch a movie. The school even organized an ice cream social on Friday.

"The kids feel that the test is being done to them and not for them," says Jill Davidson, an active PTO member at King."âThis is helping them to feel honored and safe."

And Mike DeGrange, who has three children in the Foster-Glocester public schools and is a Republican candidate for Town Council in Glocester, thinks that standardized testing "does not give you a fair picture of the school." He says teachers should spend more time making sure that children are well rounded.

While elementary schools are trying to lower anxiety around standardized tests, high schools have the twin challenge of persuading teenagers to take the NECAP seriously because it now counts toward graduation and keeping the angst within reason.

At Lincoln High School, parents have donated an iPod to be raffled off as a way to entice juniors to do their best on the NECAP. Students who perform well on the NECAP are released from taking a final exam in that particular subject.

"A real concern I have is that students are afraid to try because they think they will fail," says Principal Kevin McNamara. "Rather than trying and failing, they give up beforehand."

At Barrington Middle School, the principal doesn't allow teachers to assign homework on NECAP testing days.

"The first week, it's not too stressful," says Principal Richard K. Wheeler Jr. "By the time we finish, the kids have had it. It's exhausting. The common concern from teachers is that so much time is being taken away from instruction."

Across the state, the drumbeat that 11th grade NECAPs really count this year has been gathering momentum. It is a regular subject of conversation in student advisories, at special assemblies and during parent-teacher conferences.

At Ponaganset High School, teachers have replicated the testing conditions to get juniors comfortable with the format. The test results become part of their permanent transcript and students receive extra credit for those portions of the English or math NECAP on which they score proficient.

"We have built it into our curriculum," says Principal Joseph Goho. "We have a math skills class in ninth grade that is focused on the NECAP. Our kids are required to take it."

Rebecca Bass has a 16-year-old daughter at Pilgrim High School, in Warwick, and she worries about what might happen if her child tanks the test. Her daughter is taking sample questions from the NECAP and failing the math portions, yet she earns As and Bs in her classes.

""How can you take an A-B student and say she flunks? What does that say about your testing? I'm a concerned parent. I get involved. I look at the test results. Last year, only 19 percent of the juniors were proficient in math. Maybe they should give a course on how to take the test."

State Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist says that Rhode Island, has, in fact, pushed back against the high-stakes testing phenomenon. Here, students have to demonstrate proficiency in measures other than test scores, such as a senior project or portfolio of their best work, to earn a high school diploma.

But there is some confusion around just how "high stakes" the NECAP is. The Rhode Island Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education is trying to sort out exactly what it really meant when it created the regulations.

Meanwhile, Gist says that students and parents should take the NECAP very seriously:

"They should be very, very focused about making sure their child is partially proficient," she says. "Because if they aren't, that's a concern for what it means in the future. It will factor into graduation."

Test prep, meanwhile, has become a fall ritual at many schools, with teachers giving sample questions and reviewing testing protocols. More than one principal thinks the amount of time devoted to testing and test prep has gotten out of hand.

"The public deserves to know that schools are doing the job," says Portsmouth High School Principal Robert Littlefield, "but I think there are other ways of doing it than subjecting kids to six days of testing. And I do worry about placing so much emphasis on one test."

Littlefield isn't alone.

Joseph Maruszczak, a school principal in Mansfield, Mass., and the parent of a fifth-grader in Warwick, said his daughter Molly was so stressed out by the NECAPs that she asked her dad to give her a "pep talk" call before school began. Schools, he says, have lost the balance between assessment and instruction and students will ultimately suffer because of it.

"We're now moving into the next phase, with not only schools but teachers being held accountable," he says. "For all of us in this profession, the pressure cooker is being turned up a notch. It makes you wonder what the implications will be for our kids."

Gist, however, reminds parents about what things were like before the advent of high-quality tests: "Not only did students not have the skills they needed to be successful in careers or in college, we had situations where students graduated who were not literate."

"It's incredibly important to be clear about what we really want our students to know and be able to do," she says. "We have to know where they're strong and where they're weak and we have to use that information to improve instruction."

Are we over-testing students?

Gist says those concerns are not without merit and added that "when interim assessments are layered on top of what happens in the classroom, we run the risk of having too much going on." She says, however, that some of the new Race to the Top money will be used to help teachers integrate testing into the regular curriculum.

What about the common complaint that standardized tests place students, especially 11th graders, under too much pressure?

"I don't want students to be anxiety ridden," Gist says. 'But I don't think there is anything wrong with feeling some pressure. We all have pressure. Kids who play sports have pressure. A little bit of pressure isnât a bad thing."

KEY POINTS Statewide school tests

New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests are given from Oct. 1-22.

In grades 3-8, students take three 90-minute sessions each of reading and math.

In grades 5 and 8, there are two additional 90-minute sessions of writing.

In grade 11, there are two 90-minute sessions each of reading, writing and math.


— Linda Borg
Providence Journal


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