Testing, Testing, Testing

Missouri's MAP is a fine, thoughtful standardized test. So how come it's wreaking havoc in the schools?

Mr. Howard starts toward the blackboard, then remembers. "What're you gonna do with that MAP?" he calls over his shoulder.

"We're gonna ZAP that MAP!" the fourth-graders shout.

"Ms. Cannon can't hear you," he warns, pointing down to the principal's office, two floors below.

Fourth-grade teacher Arthur Howard says the MAP brought focus.
Fourth-grade teacher Arthur Howard says the MAP brought focus.
Fourth-grade teacher Arthur Howard says the MAP brought focus.
Jennifer Silverberg
Fourth-grade teacher Arthur Howard says the MAP brought focus.

"We're gonna ZAP THAT MAP!" they roar, and he beams.

Unlike his beleaguered colleagues at other schools, Arthur Howard is delighted by the annual Missouri Assessment Program exam that's reshaping Missouri's educational system. Two years ago, his beloved Benjamin Banneker Elementary School was one of 40 St. Louis public schools branded a "school of opportunity," euphemism for "academically deficient." The new principal, Emma Cannon, immediately set out to realign the curriculum with the "Show-Me Standards" tested by the MAP. She used federal funds to hire extra teachers and shrank class sizes so teachers could nurture every student's progress. She allayed her teachers' fears ("The only one whose job is on the line is me"), but she made the goal crystal-clear.

Last spring, tiny Banneker did so well on the MAP that it made Missouri's Top 10 list for most improved scores. "We are MAP-driven," Howard says happily. "It's given us focus, and it's given the kids more confidence about showing what they know." They take the exam eagerly, and when they finish, they inform their teachers, "We did wonderful!"

Of course, they've had a meticulously planned curriculum that integrated every MAP standard, measuring classroom time by the item's proportional weight on the test, and for the past month their teachers have avoided anything "MAP-intensive," working instead to make the kids comfortable. "Don't get nervous now," soothes Howard, a tall, portly gentleman who moves like a dancing bear and keeps order with mock ferocity. "People are going to be coming in and out while you are taking the test, and you know what I want you to do? Take your pencil and say [he laughs wickedly], 'I got this one, baby!' "The testing window opened this Monday, and it will shut May 11. During those four weeks, half-a-million public-school students will take the MAP, and thousands of adults will sweat blood over the results. A state requirement only since 1998, the MAP has already attained Holy Grail status, dictating curriculum, teaching methods and school priorities. Even its detractors say it's the best standardized test Missouri's ever had, forcing teachers to demand greater literacy and critical thinking year-round.

But because the MAP wields such sudden power, it's also creating havoc. Districts can lose accreditation if their MAP scores fall; schools can be dissolved, their teachers stripped of tenure. Principals, who have no tenure to shed, depend on the MAP scores for their very jobs. There's talk of making the MAP a high-school-graduation requirement and of adding "performance" (read: "MAP scores") to the formula that sets teachers' salaries. The goal is accountability -- and yet the MAP is virtually useless as feedback for the teachers. Because it lets kids write out their answers instead of picking them from the air, scoring is labor-intensive, half-a-year has gone by before teachers see the results and, because it would be prohibitively expensive to give the same MAP-subject exam more than once every three or so years, there's no real way to compare methods or measure improvement. Instead, teachers find themselves doing everything they've warned their students not to do: cramming up to the last minute; drilling tricks and techniques and rote content; obsessing.

"MAP MAP MAP, every staff meeting, beating this dead horse all year long," rants an administrator elsewhere in the St. Louis Public Schools. "Our superintendent got up last year and said, 'If teachers can't do it, they can get out.' How dare he? He couldn't do it! We're working against extraordinary odds, and all we get is browbeaten."

She's normally a calm and sweet-tempered woman. But the MAP has a way of bearing down on you. "It's a very difficult test, and students are having a difficult time with it," notes Michael P. Grady, professor of educational studies at St. Louis University, "partly because it's new and partly because it's testing the way teachers have not traditionally taught, requiring students to demonstrate what they know. It's also much more difficult to score, more complex and more subjective. And it has more political weight than any previous standardized test; the emphasis on it is just overwhelming. You put on a workshop that mentions MAP skills, and a couple hundred people show up; you put on a workshop on the development of China, you'll get three or four."

The subjects tested -- science, communication arts, math, social studies, health/physical education and a pilot subject, visual arts -- rotate in a staggered schedule, two at a time from third grade through high school. There are three test sessions for each subject: a fill-in-the-blank "constructed response"; a "performance event" in which students must show their work; and a traditional multiple-choice test. "It's a really strict testing environment," explains Chris Fowler, a freshman at Pattonville High School. "You can't even go to the bathroom unless it's a severe emergency."

This year's third-graders are taking the MAP for the first time, in science and communication arts, but by the time they return to those subjects, in middle school, the exams' scope will have broadened cumulatively and their success will hinge on all their previous teachers, all their previous learning. By high school, the range of scores is as wide as a football field, and improvement is far harder to elicit. Graphed, the scores zag with mysterious predictability: In the St. Louis Public Schools from 1997-2000, the percentage of math scores in the top two tiers increased by more than 7 percentage points for the fourth-graders but by less than 1 point for the eighth-graders and dropped by almost 2 points for the 10th-graders. Science scores rose by 9 points for the third-graders and by almost 3 points for the seventh-graders but dropped by nearly 1 point for the 10th-graders. Statewide, the average scores were higher, but the pattern was identical.

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