Testing, Testing, Testing

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

Schafer sums up the two schools of thought: "One says you can properly compare scores only when schools are at similar socioeconomic levels. The other says all these kids are going to compete for the same jobs, so they should be held to the same standards. If you differentiate among schools, you only allow a school to look effective when it isn't."

So no more excuses.

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.

Controversy over the MAP, as with virtually every other controversy, boils down to power and how it's wielded. The state made the MAP, but when administrators play crack-the-whip, the state's nowhere to be found. Asked whether MAP scores should dictate a principal's salary, Friedebach says swiftly, "That's a local decision." Should the test factor strongly in teacher evaluations? "That's local, too. Missouri is definitely a locally controlled state, and I think that's good."

How locally controlled can you be with what some are calling a state curriculum? "This is by no means a state curriculum," he counters. "A state curriculum would tell you how, and when, to teach these concepts." And just how much of the variance in MAP scores is due to the quality of instruction? "Oh, jeez," he sighs. The he brightens: There is a simple answer. "When districts determine that they are going to focus on the standards, dramatic impact can occur. Rockwood, for example. Granted, they're a good district already, but they have a very tight alignment [of curriculum with standards], and it shows."

As a principal, Schmink is more interested in what happens later this year, when the state identifies the lowest-scoring 50 schools. She's not worried about Dewey -- "just the fact that these are kids whose parents cared enough to fill out that application for magnet school makes a difference" -- but other schools aren't so lucky. Granted, if they're found "academically deficient" two years running, they won't be dissolved until they've received five years of additional teacher training and resources. "But that won't stop parents who care from getting their kids out," Schmink notes. "And that would leave you with only the kids whose parents don't care."

The MAP doesn't make note of parental involvement or that luxury of the rich and, occasionally, the federally funded poor, small class sizes. Yet both are far better predictors of academic success than any standardized test. "An idiot knows that you can work better with 15 children than with 30," remarks Cannon, and Reger still remembers the year a scheduling snag made her split a class into two sections, one with 31 kids and one with 14. "I had two really bad behavior disorders among the 14," she recalls, "and still we moved like lightning, because I could give them attention."

And what about those third-graders, squirming through long exams in science and communication arts? "Makes 'em cry?" asks Friedebach, familiar with the complaints. "There are different points of view. One can teach science while teaching reading; you can teach people to read about science." Besides, he adds, the third-grade science scores have improved markedly. "When you start measuring things at a spot, things change."

Measurement is seductive; it gives you something to point to, something to do. Now the Francis Howell board members and, no doubt, quite a few others, have decided the MAP's not enough: They want even more standardized testing. "When are we going to teach?" wails King. She'd rather stick with only the MAP but revise it so that it allows more kids to do well: "I don't think there's anything wrong with a test that says, 'These are the standards, and we want everyone to be able to do very well on this test.' But that's not how it was created. If a lot of kids get an item wrong, they throw it out, but if a lot of kids get it right, they throw it out, too."

Asked whether that's true, Friedebach mutters, "No, no, no! There are a lot of half-truths out there. We're trying to find out whether kids are just beginning to understand a concept or have a good grasp of it. If everyone gets it right, that doesn't tell us much -- so yeah, I guess we would throw it out. But we might keep a question where 90 percent got it right. We want items that go across the spectrum.

"There is nothing mysterious about preparing for the MAP," he adds. "The Show-Me Standards have been out there for seven years now." Yeah, teachers counter, but you can't teach it all yourself. What if you wind up being penalized for your predecessors' lapses? "In 2001, we will be testing math for the fifth year," he answers wearily. "How many years does it take the 10th-grade teachers to figure out that they need to make sure their 10th-graders know these things and they need to talk to the ninth-grade teachers about it?" Human nature being what it is, those teachers will, of course, thank them profusely and immediately begin rectifying their omissions.

As for the teachers' nervous systems, Friedebach suggests they take the advice they give their kids: "If you start in September and you do your homework, then by the time you get to the test it will take care of itself."

Even the brightest of students never believed that one.

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