School Test Probes Raise Concern
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
WASHINGTON - The movement across the states to use testing to measure school reform is causing a stir. A sereis of exams, including high school exit exams, have become the centerpiece in a state-by-state drive to hold schools, teachers and students accountable to new academic standards. But, complaints of sinking morale among educators and students, growing corruption of test results and flawed new tests, are beginning to surface.
"Policymakers in too many states are trying to place more weight on stanardized test results than any human can bear," Walt Haney of the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy in Massachusetts told stateline.org.
General Assemblies and local school districts across the nation are passing laws to test students, usually in grades: 4, 6, 8 and 10. The exams are meant to put teeth into new state standards for education. Forty states have adopted standards, meaning they have defined what they think students should know in the major subjects at different grade levels.
Every state except Iowa and Nebraska has statewide tests. Nineteen states require exit exams for students to graduate from high school.
According to the educator's union, the National Education Association (NEA), an increasing number of states are pushing to tie student scores to teacher performance evaluations and or pay.
Because a growing number of politicians have the right to take-over or shut down chronically failing schools, reward schools that show progress and give infusions of cash to help suffering schools, and because real estate prices often depend on the schools in a district, testing has become a political football.
Research shows results from the first year a test is administered are usually marked by failure. Ninety-seven percent of Virginia's students failed the last Spring's first round of testing. Because the scores are low, Haney says, it appears to voters that schools are failing and reform is needed. Inevitably, over the next three to four years, students learn the test and scores increase -- a great advantage for a politician who introduces a new test, according to Haney.
"Politicians can point to the increase in passing rates on new testing programs and say they have improved education. But in fact, on high stakes testing you can increase the success rate through a variety of means without actually increasing the knowledge and skills expected to be learned from the test," Haney said.
Tennessee education professor, J.E. Stone, who supports testing but not policies like Virginia's where students must pass at 70 percent or else suffer sanctions, said an accountability system with sanctions forces schools and teachers to do their jobs differently. "Energy, time and resources are poured into deficient students to get them above the bar as opposed to a more equitable distribution of that time and resources."
In fact, as school districts compete to get higher ratings, some states have seen testing scandals erupt. Texas and Connecticut are wrapping up corruption investigations this spring.
Two Connecticut teachers in East Hartford, a problematic school district, claimed that children were misidentified as special education students as part of a policy to exempt low-achieving students from Connecticut's Mastery Tests (CMT). The CMT regularly exempts special education and English-as-a-second-language students.
The probe found that during one year in the early 90s a "refer and exempt policy" was in effect, confirming some of the teachers allegations. It also found that a school attempted to hold back a group of eighth graders to prevent them from taking last year's test and reducing the school's average, but the state intervened, according to the Hartford Courant.
The State Education Commissioner Theodore S. Sergi said there was no evidence of a coordinated effort to limit test takers to keep average test scores high, but he admits there were some illegal exemptions. Investigators are recommending disciplinary action against the teachers who made the allegations for violating student confidentiality rights.
Texas is still awaiting the results of their investigation of an allegation that some school employees in certain districts changed student information and scores to boost school ratings. State education officials ordered 11 districts to review reports of excessive erasures and corrections on three years worth of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills given in grades 3-8 and grade 10.
But the corruption spreads further, Austin has been under a criminal investigation for allegedly altering some student-id numbers to keep results of those who scored low on the exam out of school accountability ratings.
At least one Houston Chronicle editorial has requested the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education to investigate the alleged shenanigans.
Rhode Island and New York share similar allegations of teachers exposing students to material that ended up on their new state exams. New York's $5.8 million 4th grade reading exam, designed with CTB/McGraw-Hill, had reading passages identical to literature published in Scholastic Inc.'s reading series. The passages were used throughout the state. In addition, state officials admitted that many teachers knew the titles of two of the three reading passages that the test focuses on a month before the test.
New York's exam has been closely watched because it is a forerunner in a national movement back to teaching basics like writing, spelling and grammar and to do it by the fourth grade.
Meanwhile Rhode Island's education department just wrapped up a probe that found more than 50 teachers in 21 school districts had used last year's state tests to prep students before this year's exam. But none of the teachers did so with the knowledge that the same tests were to be given this year, according to investigators. In fact, the test's publisher inadvertently sent last year's test to some teachers as a practice test.
Before Rhode Island's saga concluded, charges of McCarthyism were lobbed at state officials for seeking information on test copying among other things. There were rumors that teachers would be charged for copyright violations. Teachers were incredulous as to why the state would administer the exact same test two years in a row. In the end, teachers didn't face sanctions and students will have to retake the test in May.
"As more pressure is placed on administrators with results effecting job performance and having ramifications for schools, there is going to be more inclination to do what they can to make sure their schools are as high as they can be," School Boards Association spokesman, Dave Griffith said.
Others are fearful for the children, "if politicians are trying to use test results to hold both students and institutions accountable the institutions are always in a better position to protect their interest than are the students," Haney said,"and unfortunately the institutions will sometimes protect their interests at the expense of the welfare of young people." He adds that holding high school students back a grade tends to increase the likelihood that they will dropout.
Just a month after the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results had been heralded for better performance across the board in grades 4, 8 and 12, the U.S. Department of Education opened a probe. Connecticut led the nation with top scorers, but it appears that some states may have improved their standing by excluding portions of students with disabilities and limited knowledge of English. States with the greatest gains in grade 4 had the largest number of students exempted from the exam.
The preliminary review indicates that states followed the test's rules vigilantly. "It wasn't that anyone was trying to influence NAEP scores. We found nothing irregular at all," the Federal Commissioner of Education Statistics, Pascal Forgione Jr. told Education Week.
Testing is necessary and a good measurement, contends Stone, professor and head of an Education Consumers ClearingHouse, an online forum for parents, employers, and taxpayers. He disagrees with complaints of tests causing undue pressure on teachers and schools. "If your local bank falsified annual reports and this was discovered by bank examiners, would anyone be seriously arguing that we were putting too much pressure on the banks?"
Still, morale has suffered and fear is gripping teachers, according to reports. In late February, more than 60 Connecticut teachers crowded into a New Haven Education Board meeting to vent anger over being held solely responsible for bad results on the CMT.
"Nobody wants to be viewed as being a failure," Reg Weaver, NEA vice president said. The NEA has expressed the fear that new teachers will not be willing to take positions in inner city, impoverished school districts because they do not want to be labeled or sanctioned for poor results on tests.
The morale issue has also spread to the students. Last month, seven Illinois high school students made headlines by purposefully failing the state exam to protest excessive testing and preparation. Parents complained that the test-prep dumbed down the curriculum with constant drills.
Parents in one district in Michigan prohibited their children from taking the new high school test because they feared it might hurt their chances of going to college. In North Carolina's Johnson County parents filed a lawsuit against districts to protest their children being held back for flunking the exam.
And in Maine some have argued that the new test is too grueling. The twelve-hour, seven-day exam asks students to describe how a karyotype works (a biology question) and to write a lullaby in three-fourths time. The test was developed by more than 300 Maine teachers.
In other states, the questions are dead wrong. New Jersey and Massachusetts have found errors. New Jersey education officials concluded that the mistakes in the science portion of the sample test were caused by a rush to get the sample questions for the 8th and 11th graders out quickly. Seven out of 28 sample questions had errors.
In Kentucky, the test is on solid footing with teachers reporting that instruction and learning had improved, but teachers are experiencing burn out. And a scholarly study, "Consequences of Assessment," presented by William A. Mehrens, said that one third of Kentucky teachers they sampled said test questions were occasionally rephrased, revisions are recommended during or after the test and hints to correct answers are given out.
That is why assessing the assessors is important, according to Stone. "Fudging and outright cheating on these tests simply points to the need for outside auditing -- a Dunn & Bradstreet of education. An outside auditor can come in and sample or test or assess the assessments." Stone fears that the political fallout from testing scandals will arm accountability opponents.
Most in the education field agree that tests should be considered with other factors such as grades and the number of students going to college or getting jobs after graduation, to determine a schools performance.
Stone points to Dallas, Texas where they use the state test to look at the gains made to determine a schools performance.
But opponents complain that lawmakers see testing and assessment as a panacea for solving concerns about the education system. By mandating tests it appears that performance is synonymous with a quality education, Mehrens said.
"Thinking new tests will lead to better students is the same as thinking that better speedometers will make for faster cars," he said.