Testing, Testing, Testing

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

Missouri NEA members are so frustrated that they've commissioned William D. Schafer, who holds a doctorate in educational research and measurement and helped develop Maryland's standardized test, to study the way the MAP is used and make recommendations to DESE. In general, he says, "an assessment should not be a surprise to anyone. Usually the problem isn't that a test is too inclusive but that it's too vague. In Maryland, we put down 'important Supreme Court cases,' and all the teachers protested -- how would they know which decisions the state deemed important? They were right. So we chose 10." Schafer is a strong believer in testing -- the more the better, to get kids used to it -- but when he's asked whether a MAP score reveals anything definite, he hesitates: "I'm trying to think of something. I would use it" -- his voice slows to a ponder -- "as a way to generate hypotheses that I would then explore, because, frankly, test scores are fallible."

MAP data should be used to make school-level decisions, says Schafer, not decisions about individual teachers or students. Try explaining that to a school board embarrassed by its district's MAP scores or a legislator who has just jumped on President George W. Bush's accountability-through-standardized-testing bandwagon. "Politicians think tests teach and the more they test, the more the kids will learn," sighs Grady. "In my opinion, just the opposite happens." The best teachers not only feel hamstrung by the "curriculum framework" but shy away from the schools that need them the most, because they're afraid the lower test scores will jeopardize their own professional standing.

Tests affect administrators, too: The Hazelwood School District just bought land for $1.5 million, in part to block construction of an apartment complex that might increase the number of low-income transient students taking their tests. Kids at one University City school say that when their principal saw last year's test scores, she cried. And U. City residents successfully campaigned against a tax increase for the district last week by pointing to those very scores.

Banneker Principal Emma Cannon fought for small classes so she could watch each student's progress.
Jennifer Silverberg
Banneker Principal Emma Cannon fought for small classes so she could watch each student's progress.
Banneker third-graders Michael Jenkins and Annyea Branch, thinking.
Jennifer Silverberg
Banneker third-graders Michael Jenkins and Annyea Branch, thinking.

So far, the students are the people least affected by their MAP scores. The only statewide consequences to date are free college-credit courses or advanced-placement tests for the high achievers and extra tutoring during evenings, weekends and summertime for the low achievers. (It's also a motivational strategy: DESE hopes the threat of summer school will help older students concentrate.) The state Board of Education says other individual consequences are "not yet determined," and Schmoock can't help noticing that "in the new accreditation program, there's an increasing focus on student performance specifically related to the MAP." Locally, some schools already use MAP scores as criteria for their gifted programs; others are bent on making the MAP a condition for graduation.

Until there's DNA test verification, that's a dangerous proposition. Last year in Minnesota, 50 students were mistakenly kept from graduating because of a scoring error on their standardized exams. In New York in 1999, almost 9,000 students were mistakenly sent to summer school because their tests were graded inaccurately. Even at Banneker, where they've mastered the art of MAP improvement, the principal is afraid the scores count too heavily. "The MAP has a lot of power at this point," Cannon observes quietly. "I don't think we really want to use it to evaluate teacher performance, because we could end up penalizing teachers inappropriately. I'm almost thinking it should not be used to evaluate individual school performance, because you're only looking at a few grade levels, and that may not be an accurate picture, depending on how the children fall. For an individual student, tracking the scores over the years would be OK, but if it meant making a judgment on one particular grade level, I don't know if I'd want to do that, either."

Imagine a really nice guy with a screechy voice who somehow gets the lead in the school play. If he were in a supporting role, you could clap for him. But you don't want that voice taking over the show.

The MAP shouldn't star, either. It is merely a standardized test. But as standardized tests go, it's pretty darn good. It's been vetted by some of Missouri's best teachers, and everyone agrees it's a dramatic improvement over its predecessor, a solid-multiple-choice machine-scored monstrosity the teachers nicknamed Trivial Pursuit. The MAP takes more risks and expects higher performance: There's still a classic multiple-choice test in Part III, for comparison purposes, but Parts I and II require students to read closely, think a problem through and write out their answers, step by step -- and that simple shift transforms the rest of the school year.

First thing every morning, Banneker freezes -- no movement in the halls, no noise, no interruptions -- while everybody practices reading. Way up on the third floor, in Room 303, the "Older Roots" (kids reading below age level) sit on the floor cross-legged, so close to teacher Nicole Hutchison that her chalk dust falls on their upturned noses. "What do you think Petey saw?" she asks brightly. Hands shoot up, but she presses her finger against her lips. "Let me see thinking." Eight brows furrow. "Share when you are ready," she says gently, and this time fewer hands hit the air, but they hold steadier. "OK, you had some great answers -- give yourselves an Elvis!" The kids strum invisible guitars and mutter, "Thankyouverymuch."

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