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Nebraska Shuns State Tests

Susan Notes:
Send Nebraska commissioner of education Doug Christensen's words to every education leader you know.

I met Doug Christiansen a couple of years ago. He told me that as long as he had anything to say about it Nebraska would not fall into line with the NLB testing mandates. Citizens of Nebraska should be grateful that he is a man of his word.

LA VISTA, Neb. -- Instead of filling in bubbles on a multiple-choice exam, 10th grader Monica Miller scribbles a quick paragraph to show her teacher she understands the symbolism in a short story she just read.

Macy Morrison, 8, opens an online portfolio to review her scores on math problems that test her reasoning skills. Kyle Dunbar reads to a 5th-grade classmate, who will offer suggestions about how to improve his fluency.

In schools on the outskirts of Omaha, this is how teachers decide whether their students have mastered reading and math under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Here, students aren't pushed to do well on 50-minute tests that will determine whether their teachers and their schools are considered successful--the kind of pressure faced across Illinois as children take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.

With criticism mounting over implementation of the federal accountability law and states scrambling to overhaul their testing systems to comply, Nebraska alone has succeeded in saying no to mandatory statewide tests.

The state has persuaded federal education officials to approve the nation's most unorthodox assessment system, which allows school districts to use portfolios to measure student progress.

For this, Nebraska education Commissioner Douglas Christensen has been hailed as a visionary and derided as an obstructionist.

"I don't give a damn what No Child Left Behind says," Christensen said. "I think education is far too complex to be reduced to a single score. We decided we were going to take No Child Left Behind and integrate it into our plan, not the other way around. If it's bad for kids, we're not going to do it."

Nebraska's system is far from perfect--it is expensive, time consuming for teachers and makes comparisons among districts difficult. The system works here in part because of the state's small school districts and homogeneous population. Few imagine it would be possible in Illinois, especially in a huge urban district such as Chicago.

But critics of No Child Left Behind--and the high-stakes testing mania it has spawned--say Nebraska's example proves that educators can create a different kind of accountability system that meaningfully measures student learning.

Districts have own methods

Nebraska's 517 school districts design their own assessment systems: a portfolio of teachers' classroom assessments, district tests that measure how well children are meeting locally developed learning standards, a state writing test and at least one nationally standardized test included as a reality check.

These are submitted to state education officials and a team of outside testing experts for review, and the districts are rated not just on the proficiency of their students but on the quality and reliability of their testing portfolio.

Federal education officials said Nebraska's system passed muster because the state's constitution guarantees local control over school accountability and the state was able to demonstrate that the assessments were valid and reliable. However, Eugene Hickok, U.S. undersecretary of education, said he still favors statewide testing systems to ensure that standards are comparable in every school.

That method "has a certain efficiency that most states prefer," Hickok said. "But the federal law doesn't say you can only have one test. People shouldn't think No Child Left Behind is the only way you hold students accountable or measure student achievement."

Nationwide, teachers in thousands of districts already use such comprehensive portfolios; they just are not used by state and federal officials to determine whether the schools are making academic progress.

Illinois Supt. of Education Robert Schiller, whose former district in Maryland experimented with portfolio assessment with mixed results, said he applauds Nebraska's efforts to do something other states have been unable or unwilling to do.

"It's admirable, but it's also very, very difficult," Schiller said. "Absolutely, a portfolio system is much more representative than a one-time assessment. But it's a very time-consuming process, and very difficult in districts where you have lots of students transferring and high turnover of teachers."

At Portal Elementary in La Vista, 2nd grader Macy Morrison can see for herself that she's making progress. She has been taking tests since school started. By the end of the year, her teacher will send the district 33 measures of Macy's progress in reading, writing and math.

During a recent visit, Macy was reading an "Arthur" book into a microphone on a computer. This test measures Macy's fluency--a rare example in which speech is actually measured for state standards--and when she's finished she knows exactly what she should do to improve.

"My expression was just right, but I'm still getting there on my smoothness because I had a lot of stops," Macy said, clicking to a bar chart of her progress during 2nd grade. Tests make Macy a little nervous, but she knows they are important--and her reasons have nothing to do with the reputation of her school.

"We take these tests so we can learn more and the teachers can see how we're doing," she said.

Better than the alternative

Sixth-grade teacher Melissa McCain knows some of her Nebraska colleagues think their jobs would be easier with state-ordered tests. But after the year she spent teaching in Texas--where children take high-stakes tests every year--she's convinced the extra work beats the alternative.

"Everything was about the test in Texas. The pressure was great. I would have kids who got sick on test day, they were so stressed out," McCain said. "Here, we are assessing our kids every day. I have more flexibility to meet the needs of individual kids."

Despite all the hand-wringing over the federal law, No Child Left Behind isn't even a factor for most of the schools in this largely rural state.

Only 159 of Nebraska's 517 school districts are on the federal radar because the others are so small they don't trigger the law's threshold of 30 students testing in any one group--whether by grade, race or income level.

One of the criticisms of the Nebraska system is that it doesn't guarantee uniform standards across districts--thus, a student might pass reading in one district but not be able to meet standards in another.

These differences in assessment systems are clearly visible in three neighboring districts just outside Omaha.

State education leaders have praised the fifth-largest district in the state, Papillion-La Vista, for developing an exemplary system. The standards are high and validated by national test scores. The district trains its teachers constantly. The teachers control the assessments. The students view tests as a natural part of their school day.

"You will never hear us talking about getting ready for a big test. We will never compare the performance of schools in our district," said Jef Johnston, the district's assistant superintendent. "The only thing we will ever tell our principals is that, wherever you are now, you have to do better next year.

"What keeps teachers from cheating? Nothing, except honesty and the desire to do the right thing for kids."

In the Millard school district, an affluent suburban district with 19,000 students, proficiency is measured solely by district-designed multiple-choice and short-answer tests. Teachers here don't create portfolios, but do give a national standardized test and state writing tests as required. District officials said they never considered moving to classroom assessments because they want to guarantee their students have a base level of skills that can be measured by a single test.

School officials in Ralston, a 3,000-student district where a quarter of the students are low-income, are under pressure to design a more rigorous testing program after state officials rated the district's assessments unacceptable.

The district reported that 76 percent of its students passed reading standards and about 97 percent were proficient in math. But district officials acknowledge their tests were too easy and didn't match up with much lower scores seen on the national Stanford exams, where about 58 percent of Ralston elementary pupils scored above average in reading and 60 percent in math.

Jerry Riibe, Ralston's new assistant superintendent, said he remains committed to the idea that children are best assessed in the classroom and is confident the district can create a more reliable program.

"The easy thing to do would be to write a test and give it to everyone," Riibe said. "But it doesn't give teachers the information they need to improve learning. You can make classroom assessments work, as long as you're willing to trust your teachers and invest the time and effort it takes."

Teachers know best

Christensen said Nebraska's system is unusual because it rests on a revolutionary concept: Teachers know better than tests whether students are learning, and they can be trusted to make that happen.

"Educators have never been in control of their craft," said Christensen, a former all-state quarterback who trained for the ministry before settling on a teaching career. "What makes our system work is it speaks to the heart of teachers."

— Tracy Dell\'Angela
Chicago Tribune


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