Testing, Testing, Testing

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

Then there are the peripheral casualties. In one district, guidance counselors are charged with coordinating all the mechanics of the test, and they say it eats up two months of their time and energy -- not to mention requiring them to halt individual counseling and support groups for death, divorce and anger. "We had a fifth-grader come in and say she was raped," recalls a counselor who was mired in testing prep at the time. "We have a young man who's convinced he's a cartoon character, and our joke to each other is 'Well, let's get his reading scores up!'"

Priorities, in other words, get skewed. So do expectations. Even teachers who won't complain about their own stress levels find themselves advocating fiercely for the youngest kids. "I was proctoring the third-grade exam last year," says Reger, "and there was this chubby little black guy -- I just fell in love with him. He was writing about sewer rats for his essay, and the rats were all trying to get out of the sewer and knocking each other over and then they decided to cooperate. He just wrote his heart out, and then he just clunked over and fell dead asleep, out like a light. There is so much writing for the third grade. We wanted them to move the science test up to fifth grade and let the third-grade teachers concentrate on reading. But the state said it would be too costly, because they'd have to make all new tests."

Banneker's third-grade teachers make their position plain, arguing in the lunchroom right in front of their principal. "The performance objectives are set too high," Hutchison says firmly. "The third-graders see a very vague prompt and 10 pages of blank paper, and they're not ready for that. Give the fifth-graders the performance event, because I would expect that of my fifth-graders."

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.

"A lot of them have the abilities, but they don't have the attention span," notes Stacy King, a third-grade teacher in the Francis Howell School District who has been involved with MAP development from the start. "The first day they're psyched, they're so excited, but by the last day they couldn't care less. It's a lot for third grade."

King flew out to the testing company's California headquarters for a teacher review of the new questions, and she mentioned one from the previous year that stopped her kids cold. The question asked how a snake's colors help it survive -- the biological purpose of camouflage -- but the picture showed a black snake on a white background. "I got all these puzzled looks," she recalls, "and I knew exactly where they were in the test." The testing experts told her that if it were a bad question, it wouldn't have "survived statistically" (everybody would have gotten it wrong). But King wasn't worried her kids wouldn't eventually figure it out; she was worried about the break in concentration and the time lost pondering something so illogical. She'd like to see another layer of question tryouts, not just the field test that decides statistical survival. "We sat there in California saying, 'This one's going to be a problem' -- but by then it was too late to do much changing."

"Don't let anyone tell you that standardized tests are not accurate measures," writes education theorist Alfie Kohn in the January Phi Delta Kappan. "They offer a remarkably precise method for gauging the size of the houses near the school where the test was administered."

His point is tough to contradict -- yet he'll find argument in the inner city, where educators are tired of the automatic ceiling on their kids' performance. At Banneker, 97 percent of the students qualify for the free/reduced-price lunch program, and the transiency rate (the proportion of the student body transferring in or out in a given year) is more than 31 percent. "When county schools participate in desegregation programs, they ask for performance reports, and there is some picking and choosing," notes Cannon. "Any child who comes to Banneker we take, and if that child comes in right before testing, her scores count. We're talking about apples and oranges if we compare Banneker to Ladue; our children do not have a lot of the opportunities or experiences, and kids from Ladue are going to college -- that's a given; it really doesn't make any difference whether they have achieved or not. My students, some of the parents haven't graduated high school. That's a given."

She's heading straight for the liberal vote, but then she wheels around: "Aside from home life, a teacher is the most important factor in a child's life. That teacher can convince that child she can do anything. So, yes, the test is culturally biased, but I don't have a problem with that, as long as you tell us what you're going to test." She lands squarely in paradox: Don't make excuses for these kids because they are poor. But never forget that they are poor.

The state ... is trying. "Socioeconomic impact shows up more on a norm-referenced test," says Friedebach, referring to the traditional multiple-choice bell-curve sort of test President Bush wants to institute nationwide. "Those tests are built to separate kids, to sort them. Those who've had opportunities to learn more outside class are more likely [from families with higher incomes]. The MAP achievement-level score should, over time, go contrary to that, because it's based on only the Show-Me Standards." And the kids whose parents can't read? "If those youngsters arrive at our front door in kindergarten and they're a bit behind, we have four years," Friedebach notes. "So that becomes the responsibility of the school district."

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