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Marc Fisher
Schools Find Wrong Answers To Test Pressure

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
Thursday, May 10, 2001; Page B01

The fifth-grade girl stands in the foyer of Bethesda Elementary School, capsized in tears. "What's the matter, sweetie?" a concerned mother asks. "Can I help?"

The girl sobs and sobs. She cannot speak. Finally, she gulps: "I'm a few minutes late, I missed the bus and now I can't go on the playground."

The mother: "They won't let you go on the playground if you miss the bus?"

Girl: "No, not the regular playground. There's a special MSPAP playground, but you can't go on it unless you come on time and bring your special red pen."

It has come to this. The MSPAP -- Maryland School Performance Assessment Program -- is Maryland's state-mandated standardized test for children in grades 3, 5, and 8. It is used to compare how well schools perform. It is, therefore, something principals and teachers desperately want students to take seriously.

How desperately? Bethesda Elementary set up a special playground with triple the usual time for students to play and an array of extra games. "If you're on time every day, are here every day, and do your best on the test, you qualify for the MSPAP Playground," says Principal Michael Castagnola. "It's a motivator. The kids get penalized if they miss a day of the test. They know that if you work hard, you're going to have fun."

And if you miss the bus, what happens? "You go to regular recess," the principal says.

Just imagine the ribbing those kids get. No wonder the little girl was weeping.

We don't need to dwell on the cheating scandals that have hit Montgomery schools two years running, as panicky principals and terrified teachers mortgage their consciences to get the scores up at any cost. This week, at Silver Spring International Middle School, the principal and six other staffers were removed after students were given advance peeks at a state math test.

Those cases are clear enough. Let's look instead at the supposedly ethical ways in which schools twist and tweak kids to get them to take the tests seriously.

In Virginia, where the Standards of Learning tests are much more deadening than the relatively creative MSPAPs, Michelle Crotteau, who teaches 10th- and 11th-grade English in Rockingham County in the Shenandoah Valley, administered the test this week with a heavy heart.

"Our students are given a five-point bonus on their final grade if they pass the SOL test in each subject area," she says. "So a student with a 89 or B average for course work who passes an SOL earns an A. Last year, I had two students who failed my course because they did not bother to do most of the coursework, yet these students passed the class because of the five added points. Talk about grade inflation!"

Michael West, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, tells me that at his daughter's middle school, students who pass this week's tests have been told they can skip the final week of school. There's a great lesson: First prize -- you don't learn.

In Maryland, there are MSPAP snacks and MSPAP parties. In Virginia, there are entire classes devoted to preparing for the SOL tests. At Carl Sandburg Middle School in Fairfax County, "Friday SOL prep classes have been going on" since the depth of winter, says eighth-grader Ijeoma Nwatu. "We've recently been given worksheets with test-taking skills, vocabulary terms, graphs and stories." On Friday, the children will work on SOL posters, which, they've been told, will boost their self-esteem.

The testing mania has brought with it a tidal wave of mediocre teaching materials. Julie Philips, a teacher who recently moved from the New York suburbs to Montgomery County, says, "Great books are tossed on the heap so that students can practice writing about short, fable-like tales that test prep writers concoct to imitate what is on the tests. It is so disheartening."

Schools are so fearful of performing poorly that some Virginia districts axed the 15-minute recess to cram in more test prep time. "With the pressure of the SOLs, there is no time for recess built into the schedule," Ron Weaver, principal of a Roanoke County elementary school, told the Roanoke Times. Virginia's Board of Education last year finally ordered elementary schools to reinstate a daily recess.

Some schools responded to the board's cry for a bit of common sense by leading kids on a three- or four-minute walk after lunch and calling it recess. Three minutes! Others grudgingly restoring a 15-minute recess -- by cutting the minutes out of physical education class. Gee, thanks.

Supporters of the testing binge argue that teaching to the test is a good thing, because it ensures that schools will eliminate unnecessary frills and focus on essentials -- the reading and math skills that the tests measure.

That one-size-fits-all approach is driving parents nuts in schools where kids are achieving; their kids are losing out on creative lessons and enriching activities because bureaucrats insist that all schools act identically.

But the notion that we must do this for low-achieving students is equally flawed; they need inspiration and individualized attention even more than kids from privileged backgrounds.

Listen to a third-grade teacher who has taught in a Fairfax County school for 30 years. Here are a few of the things she says she has had to eliminate from her classroom since the SOL tests took over the curriculum:

"We would have a whole biography unit. We would read a biography of a famous American. We would talk about the elements of a biography. Then the children would choose a famous American for a report. They would write their own autobiography. Finally, they would write a biography of one of their parents. It really got the children talking to their parents about their lives. I typed this up and bound it as a book which the children illustrated. (I don't have time anymore. I have to teach to the SOLs.)

"I would teach a poetry unit. We would explore the various forms of poetry and the children would write at least one poem in each of six forms. They would illustrate them and we would bind them as a book. Something for them to keep forever. (I don't have time anymore. We read some poems and picked out the rhyming words so they can pass their SOLs.)

"I would teach reading twice a day so the children who were behind could catch up. I was able to raise some children by two years in one school year. (I don't have time anymore. I have to teach to the SOLs. I have to teach how to fill in bubbles.)"

Frustrated by the new test-driven curriculum, this teacher has decided to leave her profession. Is that school reform?

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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