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Marc Fisher
Mountain of Tests Slowly Crushing School Quality

Marc Fisher can be reached by e-mail at marcfisher@washpost.com or by phone at (202) 334-7563.

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By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, May 8, 2001; Page B01

Those who say the culture wars are over must not have children of school age. The struggles that have divided the nation for 20 years -- the phonics fracas, the New Math mess, the tiff over teaching morality -- pale next to the brewing battle over testing.

Just as President Bush and Congress reach consensus on mandating even more testing for the nation's children, colleges by the dozens step away from the SATs as a primary arbiter of who gets in. Just as parents in poor schools rally to use standardized tests to rid themselves of incompetent teachers, parents in more affluent schools stage boycotts of the very same tests.

And just as D-Day looms for high-stakes testing programs like those in Virginia and Maryland that will deny diplomas to kids who flunk the tests, parents and teachers alike raise the alarm about classrooms where creativity, variety and inspiration are becoming dirty words.

In Montgomery County, students reel under the burden of 50 hours of testing each year, including the state-mandated MSPAPs, three other state test programs and the county-imposed CRTs. The 50 hours doesn't include PSATs, SATs or Advanced Placement tests. Now, if Bush has his way, there'll be nationally required tests as well.

In Virginia, the load is lighter, but the grumbling just as heavy, especially as we near 2004, when thousands of seniors will be denied diplomas if they fail the Standards of Learning tests.

In wealthy Scarsdale, N.Y., more than half of the eighth-graders stayed home during last week's state testing, capping a boycott organized by parents fed up with testing and its pernicious, deadening impact on their kids' education.

In the District, a relative handful of parents -- based in affluent Northwest Washington -- attempted a similar boycott of last month's exams.

Caleb Rossiter, who teaches statistics at American University, led the boycott, keeping his first-grader home from Key Elementary in the Palisades. "My son has had a whole series of Stanford-9 prep days at school, when they work over and over on multiple choice questions and how to fill in the bubbles correctly," he says. "If you could see how they waste students' time with all this test prep -- it's so disheartening."

Rossiter approached everyone from his son's teacher on up to Superintendent Paul L. Vance, asking why first-graders, many of whom can barely read, should be subjected to testing. "Everyone I talked to said there's no educational justification for this," Rossiter says. "They use the tests to grade the teachers and the principal, which everyone agrees the tests were not designed to do."

As a statistician, Rossiter likes tests. He understands how useful they can be in diagnosing learning problems. But he and those who write the tests are offended by their misuse -- even as those companies rake in millions in the nation's testing binge.

Tests that were never meant to do anything of the sort are now used to determine teacher pay and to judge the quality of schools. Even though research has repeatedly shown that affluence is the strongest indicator of test success, scores are now used to declare some schools losers and others -- such as the Prince George's County schools yesterday -- winners.

The most corrosive effects of this measurement mania are the emerging class and racial divisions over testing. "It just breaks my heart when I see parents stand up and cheer when they hear that some number of kids in their school have had their scores drawn up above Below Basic on the tests," Rossiter says. "They don't see what the effort to bring up the scores is doing to the curriculum."

They don't see the dispiriting effect of scrapping art, music and physical education because they are not on the tests. They don't see the minds that go uninspired because teachers must forsake their craft to focus like drones on getting the scores up.

"Testing is even more damaging in low-income schools because that's where you need the most creative teaching," Rossiter says.

But testing is a lot cheaper than paying teachers a decent wage, and testing makes politicians look tough, so we will test and test. And one day, we will look up and see how we have crushed our schools, and tests -- which when used properly have lifted the educational fortunes of many poor and middle-income children -- will end up the culprit, and the pendulum will swing to the other extreme, zipping right past the happy medium.

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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Previous Columns
Mountain of Tests Slowly Crushing School Quality (The Washington Post, 5/8/01)

Techway Debate Stuff of Lessons At George Mason (The Washington Post, 5/5/01)

When the People Lose Faith In a Leader (The Washington Post, 5/3/01)

Rescuing a Center From the Middle Of Nowhere (The Washington Post, 5/1/01)

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