Testing, Testing, Testing

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

The Elvis is one of dozens of lively reinforcers put forward by Success for All, a Johns Hopkins University model that assesses reading skills every eight weeks. Reading is the first step in MAP preparation -- "They can't take the test if they can't read it," Cannon notes dryly -- and the mimed praise is fun and fast to keep those ever-shortening attention spans. Three seconds after the Elvis, Hutchison has the kids reading a new story. Their voices blur into Babel, but it's such a small group that she can distinguish each hesitation or omission: "OK, that was wonderful -- give yourselves an arctic chill!" They shiver and hug themselves close, and it's on to phonics. "Give me an example of a word that has a long 'o' in it." "Oprah!" "Only!" "OK! Give yourselves a silent cheer!" Arms go up, triumphant. "Now, pencils up. Slant down, slant way down (they're drawing a Y in the air). Excellent. Give yourselves a Beethoven."

"Da-da-da-DAAAAAAAAA."

That last note vibrates the wall of the next classroom, where Rashidah Saeed guides a higher-level reading group. "Now, remember, when you select an answer, you should be able to do what?" she prompts. "Follow it up with details from the story, right?" A bespectacled little girl in tights and a skirt sits up even straighter, raises her hand and offers an answer. "Does everybody agree with that?" asks Saeed. "Do you have evidence from the story? What page should we turn to?" After a debate worthy of moot court, they practice reading vocabulary words in pairs, the prim little girl growing impatient with her partner and tossing her braids. "It's 'squinting,' come on!" He reads the rest of the list in a single breath to shut her up. Then they all talk about description, a boy finding the two sentences in the story that detail a seashell's characteristics. After a congratulatory "watermelon," the kids chomping into its imaginary middle, Saeed tells them how she wrapped seashells to bring back from Ghana last year and promises to bring one in.

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.

It's proof: You can teach creatively and prepare kids for the MAP. Besides, this kind of emphasis on reading, writing and critical thinking was sorely needed. If the MAP's influence stopped there, no good teacher would object. But by spelling out the concepts that should be learned by test time, the test also dictates the order in which material is presented and the amount of time that should be given to each concept. "What if the kids can't read?" asks Terry Reger, a 30-year veteran in the Ferguson-Florissant district. "If you let the other subjects go and concentrate on that, the scores reflect it, the school looks bad and now you're in bad with the state."

Grady's biggest worry is the narrowing of teachers' focus. "What they're doing is making a helluva good case for nonpublic schools," he remarks. "The curriculum is being constricted; learning's put in little boxes determined by what's going to be tested on the MAP. In some subjects, that makes more sense, like math, but the world of learning is much larger than the MAP. Teachers can't pursue exciting current events; there's no time. You want to be sure you teach a particular concept before the MAP in April, even if it makes more sense to do it in May.

"The best of it is the accountability," he concludes. "The worst is, it's given us a state curriculum."

The phrase rings less ominous when it's repeated in Emma Cannon's lilting, courteous voice. "We perhaps do have a state curriculum," she agrees, "but is that a bad thing? Something's always going to drive the curriculum, no matter what it is, and the MAP standards are broad ones. I can't imagine someone saying that because they had to teach MAP standards they couldn't do current events. It's possible to take almost anything you'd do as a teacher and incorporate concepts on the MAP."

It probably is, if you're planning and integrating your curriculum months in advance. But for the older kids, subjects are specialized and the "domain" of the test, the pool of possible test questions, is exhaustive. "By the end of high school, they will have a list of hundreds of things they need to know. In social studies alone, there's documents, American history, world history, economics, geography, government," says Reger, who coordinates curriculum for Ferguson-Florissant. "It's a running test, never the same. They gave us six examples of important Supreme Court cases and tested on a seventh. One year they hit really hard on economics, the next year on environment. Then the state Legislature passed a law wanting the kids to know flag etiquette. Well, I was so busy, I thought, 'Oh, flags, we'll worry about that later' -- and guess what came up on the test?"

After last year's exam, Reger heard a third-grade teacher muttering, "I taught them magnets. I taught them gravity. I taught them the universe." The teacher had obviously missed something, which is why Reger consistently warns her teachers not to dwell on any single concept. "A teacher will say, 'They don't know the four basic operations -- adding subtracting multiplying and dividing -- so I'm going to stay there till they do.' But if that's all she teaches, that's only 5-10 percent of the test. I tell them, 'You have to keep moving. Go on to geometry and algebra, and maybe the kids will pick up addition and subtraction along the way.'"

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