Friday, April 12, 2002

Multiple Choices

It's test time in public schools, but the state has doubts.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 12, 2002 at 4:00 AM

For public school students and their families, this is test week, time for the annual TCAP standardized test for grades 3-8.

For the first time in 10 years, I don't have a personal stake in the test, because my children are in high school, so I took a few hours last week to join some other volunteers tutoring third-graders at LaRose Elementary School.

It's easy to be nonchalant about the TCAP if your kids are doing all right in school. You can talk about the importance of standards or the danger of drill-and-kill teaching or whether it's all worthwhile.

But if you're not sure of your multiplication tables like Ray, one of the kids I worked with, the test can be a bummer. Trouble with multiplication means trouble with division, which means trouble with fractions and the whole structure of arithmetic. So you drill and memorize and practice. In a way, you teach the test. Not the most creative form of instruction but effective for learning seven times seven or the dates of the Civil War. Besides, Ray and his friends seemed to enjoy it.

In a long article last week called "The Class War Over School Testing," The New York Times, always ahead of the curve, caught the mood of ambivalence that surrounds the subject of testing. The author, James Traub, sees a coming backlash against testing led by well-to-do suburbanites who think teaching to the test is too structured and unimaginative.

The debate goes on in most communities. In Memphis, standardized testing drives college-prep high schools to teach vocabulary-building courses in etymology and elementary schools to adopt the same reading texts and workbooks. Etymology is glorified preparation for the ACT and SAT college-entrance exams. Workbooks are often drill for the TCAP.

Unlike New York, most of the opposition so far in Memphis has come from representatives of schools that test poorly.

Now it seems that the state of Tennessee, after nearly two decades of fooling with standardized tests of various kinds, has mixed feelings about them too.

A new report from the Office of Education Accountability is called "Multiple Choices: Testing Students in Tennessee." The clever title is only one of its virtues. Its 79 carefully footnoted pages include some important findings, especially for Memphis, which has two-thirds of the state's schools that are (multiple-choice question): A) failing; B) low-performing; C) on notice.

For instance, what will happen to failing schools and failing districts? The answer -- widely suspected and now officially acknowledged for the first time -- probably nothing. Failing districts have three years to do better, one in which they are "on notice" and two more in which they are "on probation." After that, the superintendent and school board can be removed. The report says the state board of education staff is looking at necessary steps in a takeover in response to a request from board member Avron Fogelman of Memphis. In other words, nobody knows yet.

Another question is what happens to all those tests and data? Theoretically, schools and systems are supposed to use test information to improve classroom instruction. But when the state offered sessions on how to do that, they were canceled in Knoxville and Memphis for lack of interest. Almost nobody showed up. As most of us began to suspect early in elementary school, the test is the end, not the means -- either a justification to hold you back or send you to the next grade. Testing as instruction is one of education's great myths.

The state of Tennessee has taken official notice of this but is not ready to give up the myth entirely. The remedy for the lack of interest, the report says, is "more specialized professional development sessions." In other words, if teachers don't show up for one set of sessions, offer them some other sessions. And if this doesn't work, offer a "Web-based delivery system."

The report criticizes one of the most annoying features of the TCAP scoring system, the so-called value-added feature that is supposed to recognize schools that go from bad to not so bad or good to only fair. It calls the value-added primer "confusing" and "far too technical." It even questions the wisdom of paying University of Tennessee researcher Dr. William Sanders $435,000 a year for four years, or a total of $1,740,000, to do it.

The tests, however, are not being completely ignored. One group is very interested in them -- other researchers. Tennessee, it seems, is the mother lode of testing data because of its years of experience. Former Governor Lamar Alexander was one of the first politicians to jump on the accountability-and-standards bandwagon, and his house intellectual, Chester Finn, is widely quoted in the national media on education. The "reforms" implemented by former Memphis superintendent Gerry House (and scrapped by current super-intendent Johnnie B. Watson) also drew national attention.

"Tennessee test databases have attracted the attention of researchers nationwide," the report says.

Multiple choice question. What data are most likely to attract their attention? A) report cards; B) low-performing schools; C) urban school systems.

And regardless of which answer you chose, which Tennessee city do you suppose will get hammered? A) Memphis; B) Nashville; C) Knoxville.

You got that right.

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