Testing, Testing, Testing

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

Over time, as more and more students are exposed to the MAP from the start, the older students' scores may improve. Still, by high school there are so many ability levels and motivation levels crammed into one classroom that teachers can't possibly reach them all. The kids are savvier, too; it's a challenge just getting them to show up, let alone take the test seriously. "They don't see the direct application to them as individuals," explains Joseph Powers, principal of Ladue Horton Watkins High School. Is there a direct application to them as individuals? "Well, no," he admits. "There really isn't." This is why Ladue's MAP scores, although they fell into Missouri's top 10 percent, "didn't have the same punch as the results on our ACTs and SATs," he continues. "They do cooperate; I had no discipline referrals from testing last year. But I know there were kids who thought, 'What difference does it make?'" Last year a Clayton High student was making elaborate designs with the multiple-choice bubbles; when the proctor reproved him, he shot back, "Mind your own business." By the time the student saw his scores, he'd have different teachers and different classes, and although a lousy score on the MAP might make his school look bad, it wouldn't keep him out of Harvard.

It's his teachers who are suffering from test anxiety.

"My teachers are usually a lot more nervous around testing time," reports Fowler. "They get real short with us, 'cause it matters so much to them and they know the kids don't care. Sometimes the school has assemblies about the MAP, like, 'We have to do good on this so we can get our money.' And the teachers try to incorporate it -- they'll say, 'Yeah, we have to prepare you for the MAP test; that's why we have these essay questions.' One of my teachers said their salary's based on how well their students do on the MAP test." Actually, the only money involved would be the funding lost if scores were so bad the school lost accreditation, and Pattonville hasn't yet tried bonus incentives for teachers whose students do well -- but teachers think it's only a matter of time until their salaries are tied to the MAP.

Fourth-grade teacher Arthur Howard says the MAP brought focus.
Jennifer Silverberg
Fourth-grade teacher Arthur Howard says the MAP brought focus.
Banneker third-grader Dawunda Whitfield prepares to be tested.
Jennifer Silverberg
Banneker third-grader Dawunda Whitfield prepares to be tested.

"Some of them copy the multiple-choice part and give you a grade themselves," continues Fowler, "because they know we only care if it counts." What about the pep rallies, prizes and pizza days educational consultants are recommending? Does the promise of pizza really sharpen somebody's mental concentration? "Prob'ly," he says with a shrug. "I like anything that's free. You can't make a test fun; I have yet to see it."

As an educational consultant, Grady's not enamored of the MAP, either -- he says it narrows curriculum and encourages unfair comparisons of the districts -- but he's resigned to its inevitability. He even conducts "test-wiseness programs" for schools that haven't grasped "the new three R's: reinforcement, review and rewards." Principals, meanwhile, bring in motivational speakers to get the kids pumped up, and some even ask parents not to yell or scold on a test morning, lest the kids come to school mad and flub the test. They also send reminder letters urging parents to make sure their child gets a good night's sleep -- an extra half-hour, even -- and a good breakfast (the Ferguson-Florissant School District feeds the kids itself), with a hug and a kiss for good luck.

In Missouri's new educational gamble, the kids hold all the chalk. If they score really badly two years running, their school could lose accreditation, their teachers could lose tenure and their principal could lose her job. If they score just sort of lousy, the school board will lose its temper, the disgusted residents will vote down any tax increases and the great educational hope of the new millennium will be foiled.

It's called "high-stakes testing" for a reason.

Missouri first plotted the MAP in 1993 with the creation of the Show-Me Standards, a series of concepts that teachers and decision-makers thought students should be grasping as they moved through school. Once those standards were in place, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education asked testing experts at CTB/McGraw-Hill to help devise a test. They started with math and added new subjects each year thereafter. The goal, both politically and educationally, was accountability. But the game soon turned into a tug-of-war, with the teachers on one side and the bureaucrats on the other.

"We're not against accountability," emphasizes Carol K. Schmoock, assistant executive director of the Missouri National Educational Association, which represents about 30,000 teachers. "We supported the development of the Show-Me Standards. But now what we have is such a focus on doing well on the test that our teachers feel limited in being able to teach beyond it. Districts and boards are putting undue pressure on principals and, sometimes, teachers to improve test scores or else. Districts are beginning to talk about 'pay for performance.' And the exams don't even follow a given class of students, so you're not showing what a given class is learning. The third-grade science test is not a test of the third-grade science teacher, it's a test of everything the kids have learned both inside and outside of school in grades one, two and three."

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