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NCLB Outrages

'Teaching to the Test' Isn't Working

Ohanian Comment: Yes, the schools are underperforming according to NCLB. What about according to other measures? And which subgroups are underperforming and which aren't?

The real horror of this story is not the NCLB rating but the 2 1/2 months of test prep drill.

The Rhode Island Department of Education recently released rankings for the state's middle schools. In Providence, this disturbing news has caused some school administrators to bang their heads and, in some instances, wring their hands in disbelief and frustration. They are trying to figure out what went wrong and why did the number of schools facing sanction and corrective action dramatically increase in the city of Providence.

Within the Providence School Department, every middle school is now categorized as either facing sanctions, corrective action, and/or restructuring. These labels all mean the same thing, namely, that every middle school is low performing and not improving according to the No Child Left Behind law. Despite the fact that many millions in state, local and federal Title I tax dollars have been poured into these schools over the last five years, the question is why?

Providence has certainly spent lavishly (tax dollars and private foundation money) to improve academic performance in its middle schools and it has also invested heavily in new programs. It has employed and trained numerous teaching coaches (some schools have two), hired expensive consultants in literacy and math, and introduced many new teaching methods, all of which were expected to improve the teaching and learning in classrooms. A new math program called Connected Mathematics was implemented four years ago, new reading and writing strategies such as Read 180, balanced literacy, and disciplinary literacy were also implemented in every middle school.

Comprehensive and detailed new curriculum guides called Scope and Sequence in each core subject were also rolled out. The length of the school day increased by adding teaching minutes normally reserved for morning and dismissal time. The most costly consultants money can buy have traveled in and out of Providence to train teachers and coaches in the newest teaching methods. Also, the Institute for Learning from the University of Pittsburgh has been in Providence for the past five years conducting countless hours and days of professional development for principals and teachers.

In addition, all Providence middle schools must annually develop strategic plans aimed at improving school and test performance. The development of the plans begins in the summer and continues throughout the school year. As pupil data, test results, and other student information becomes known to a school, in turn modifications to the plans are made. These strategic plans are called School Improvement Plans and Operation Smart Plans. A School Improvement Plan lays out what a school principal and teachers have jointly developed to ensure academic and school success. Operation Smart Plans outlines what will happen in a school between September and the time of annual testing. It includes the elements a school will implement to ensure every child is prepared, motivated, and ready to perform on the state tests.

To supplement all of these plans and efforts, the Providence School Department last January rolled out new Math and English test review books called Princeton Review and mandated that they be implemented immediately in all English and math classrooms. The Princeton booklets were arranged just like the state tests.

It is obvious to all principals and teachers that the Providence School Department is requiring instruction to "teach to the tests." It was hoped that by "teaching to the test" for two and a half months, student performance would improve and schools would be labeled better performing. Unfortunately, the final result was devastating. Every Providence middle school, instead of becoming an improving school, ended up falling under one or more sanctions under the NCLB law.

Common sense tells us that quick fixes never work and they are no substitute for well thought-out strategic plans. Also, when you "teach to the test" for too long, students can quickly burn out from the tediousness and routine of the test. As state testing began in March, students were burned out and disengaged. Considering that students had been filling in oval bubbles for two and a half months, what was any different about filling in more bubbles for the real tests?

The recent report card about Providence middle schools makes it apparent that the reforms of the last five years are not working in our middle schools. Taxpayers and politicians must be wondering how much more money can be spent in these schools, considering that over $25 million has already been allocated to eight middle schools in one year.

Obviously, the next step is to examine what needs to be done, and how to restructure the Providence middle schools out of their current crisis. We know this much. First, "teaching to the test" does not work. Second, the sound planning which occurs in every school in the form of School Improvement Plans and Operation Smart Plans must not be aborted in the name of quick fixes. Third, and most important, Providence middle schools will only begin to perform and resemble high performing schools when they implement the Carnegie Turning Points 2000 recommendations.

The Carnegie model has a plethora of sound research and statistical data to back up what it has said are the characteristics of successful middle schools. Highlights of the plan include the need to:

Schedule students into learning groups based upon teaching teams around English, math, science and social studies. Also, provide for a school schedule that has sufficient flexibility to provide ample time in blocks so that a school's traditional period-by-period clock does not stifle creative and engaging teaching and learning.

Better engage all students through the teaching of instruction units planned by teachers in common planning periods. These interdisciplinary or thematic learning units have been for years precursors for positively engaging students and improving their academic performance.

Reward positive academic and behavior successes on a regular basis. Celebrate these successes by sponsoring award banquets, assemblies and activities as an excellent method of engaging parents in the work of their children in school.

Develop a comprehensive and interesting after-school program which blends social, academic and intramural sport activities into a program that best meets the needs of [urban] students.

Examine all performance data to insure that increased instruction time in reading, writing, and mathematics is a priority for all children.

The Carnegie 2000 Turning Points model has consistently demonstrated success at the middle school level. Adolescent youngsters who are excited about school and connected to their teachers learn and behave better, and yes, their test scores improve.

The current predicament of Providence middle schools is not due to a lack of taxpayer dollars and financial support, but rather poor short-term fixes that do not work. Time has run out for Providence middle schools. Rhode Islanders and Providence residents want accountability and they must now raise their collective voice to the commissioner of education and to our elected officials to demand corrective action.

Too many of our middle school adolescent students have been lost as a result of failing schools. The time spent debating and talking about the issue is over. We must reform and restructure our middle schools according to the Carnegie Turning Points 2000. We know what needs to happen. The time for action is now. Our children deserve no less. But more important, the future lives of these youth and society as a whole are at stake.

D'Ambra is the retired principal of Oliver Hazard Perry Middle School and the former principal and assistant principal of Nathanael Greene Middle School.

— James D\'Ambra
Providence Journal


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