Tested--One American school struggles to make the grade

The pressure is on at schools across America: No Child Left Behind and other reforms have created a new vision of education emphasizing measurable progress for every student, every school, every year. Schools are expected to behave like businesses and are judged almost solely on the bottom line: test scores.

In the 2005-06 school year, America's students would take forty-five million standardized tests, and states would pay more than a half billion dollars, to meet the testing requirements of NCLB. The market was dominated by a few big companies, including Harcourt Assessment (creator with the Maryland State Department of Education, of the reading test) and CTB/McGraw-Hill.

Linda Perlstein immersed herself in Tyler Heights Elementary School, once deemed a chaotic failure but now held up as an example of reform done right. Perlstein explores the rewards and costs of that transformation, through the experiences of the people who lived it. Teachers follow rigid guides not just about what to teach but how. Third graders meditate to activate their brains before exams and perfect the “brief constructed responses” to essay questions, but they never write a story or put on a skit

Crafting legislation is a notoriously slow process, but No Child Left Behind came together fast. Congressional aides from both parties wasted no time,…There were only a few orchestrated hearings on Capitol Hill, and far less involvement of Education Department professionals and education associations than would normally be the case on matters affecting them. A lobbyist for the school boards association said that his organization was given twenty-four hours to look at draft legislation, when typically it got weeks or more. “The law came out of nowhere,” he said. Meetings with education groups were more briefings than discussions, one aide who helped write the law said. “It was the only way to get things done, because it was so controversial.”..No Child left Behind passed Congress in December 2001, with the support of 90 percent of senators and representatives, and was signed into law the following month.

A Bank Teller Could Pick Up the Lesson

Think about your favorite teachers from your youth, the ones who changed your life. The ones who taught you lessons you carry with you decades later. Chances are, these were the teachers with a gift for improvisation, artists of the classroom who brought a spark of life to the most mundane subjects. Chances are, they didn't teach from a script.

The explicit lessons weren't meant to offend, but they did, insecurity in teachers' abilities oozing from the exactness of the instructions. ..”Why did I spend four years in school?” [a teacher said] “Why am I getting my master's? It feels like anyone could walk off the street and have my job.”

[Teachers] were expected to follow pacing guides that laid out which lessons to teach each day in every subject. Open Court Reading [in Colorado public schools it is called Reading First] and Saxon Math came with consultants who made sure the programs were faithfully implemented. At Tyler Heights, teachers were told what share of their walls to devote to a math bulletin board (for a series of scripted daily exercises), a reading bulletin board, examples of student work, and a big list of vocabulary words needed to understand the Maryland School Assessment [the equivalent of CSAP]

[A]ll in all, teachers—the good ones, the ones you would want teaching your children—complain that the more they are told exactly what to do and how, the less they feel vested in the successes of their students, and the likelier they are to leave.

At the beginning of the year, many new teachers appreciated that Open Court laid out everything out for them. But in many ways their frustrations outweighed their relief. Some were quibbles, such as the way the sound/spelling cards had a picture of a dog on the “H” card (“hound”) instead of on “D” and a horse's face on “N” (“nose”) instead of on “H”. Because everything has to be taught in order, kindergartners learned about the wind when it was too cold to go outside; reading curricula from other publishers scheduled butterflies and picnic for winter too.

Other concerns were more fundamental: the inanity of the “decodable” books used for phonics practice that made “Dick and Jane” look plot-thick. (“A bib, A bat. A bib.”) At the other end of the spectrum was a set of heavy stories in fifth grade, nearly all in astronomy and history, that students didn't find any fun. In some ways the program moved too fast, in other ways, not fast enough. Talking about camouflage with seven-year-olds for a month and a half, wind with five-year-olds for a month and a half, not having the choice to swap out stories or assign an actual whole book, re-reading the same story five days in a row, every week. The strictures could feel stifling.

“I'm over this Open Court stuff,” one kindergarten teacher said halfway through the year. “It's the same thing day after day.” [Another teacher said during the preparation for the big test] “Quite honestly it makes me sick, what these kids have to do every day. It goes against everything I learned in school.” [She] was at the moment working toward a masters in leadership and math education, doing research on the achievement gap that warned against relying on too-frequent testing for children in poverty. More than anything she was annoyed that there was no time to demonstrate a skill, practice with the students, then let them apply it themselves; instead it was model, model, model some more.

That children from well-off families and children from poor ones have divergent school experiences is nothing new. What is significant is the disparity in spite of (and in some ways because of) a movement designed to stop it. The practice of focusing on the tested subjects of reading and math at the expense of a well-rounded curriculum is far more prevalent where children are poor and minority.

“You're not going to be a scientist if you can't read”, a superintendent once told me in defense of a school's pared-down curriculum. Well, you can't be a scientist if you never learn science either. You can't be a lawyer if you never learn to think critically, you can't be a computer programmer if you never learn to solve problems, you can't be a politician if you never learn to speak in front of a group, you can't be a professor if you never learn to research, and you can't be an author if you don't learn how to write.

Besides, plenty of children at these schools can read. It is one thing to give students who lack basic skills an intense dosage of them, doing that at the expense of engaging the most dynamic parts of their brains, and letting that drive instruction for everyone, is another matter.

President Bush, in introducing No Child Left Behind, vowed to banish the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for the nation's disadvantaged children[ but to] condemn them to a rudimentary education in the name of improvement is bigotry too.

No matter their..scores, the students of Tyler Heights can truly push ahead academically only if they are exposed to the world. The achievement gap is slave to the imagination gap and what author E.D. Hirsch Jr. calls the “knowledge gap”; the first cannot be closed as long as the other two yawn large. It is not just because knowledge will motivate children, though that is a factor. It is because, as Hirsch points out, reading is meaningless without knowledge beyond the scope of what students might be able to decode in text…

As cognitive scientist Keith Stanovich explains what reading researchers call the Matthew Effect, ”The very good children who are reading well and who have good vocabularies will read more, learn more word meanings, and hence read even better. Children with inadequate vocabularies— who read slowly and without enjoyment— read less, and as a result have slower development of vocabulary knowledge, which inhibits further growth in reading ability.”

With such advantages, it was no surprise that Mrs. Krainer's students could do the weekly Open Court exam in half the time it took Miss Johnson's class. When Miss Johnson's students were skimming through “Baxter Place”, the Crofton kids were choosing from an array of enrichment activities: making a diorama, writing a newspaper article about farm life, inventing a breakfast cereal made from ingredients cultivated on farms. One Crofton teacher complained to me that the new structured curricula and test preparation left her time to do hands-on activities only every other day; Tyler heights third graders did few hands-on activities of any kind.

Ms. McDermott read…a story about the Gingerbread Man and deflected in her firm and friendly voice every time—and there were many—that a girl named Rosie asked,”Is it time for playing?”
..[A boy] wrote in his journal, “I hat my sof Be cus I Dw Not No how to Rit.” Moments like these fuel concern that a strong academic push is inappropriate for very young children, without any commensurate long-term benefit.

Children do need to play, so it's nice to see that at Tyler Heights, the kindergarten teachers not only insisted on free time for their students but also provided the early academic focus in an environment that's hardly like cram school.
..During the hour devoted to independent language arts work each day, children copied their names in the regular way, but they also drew letters on Magna Doodles and stamped them from Play-Doh, no penalty if they stopped to mush it around a little. They learned color patterns using little plastic teddy bears; they did a weekly art project so they could master scissors.

At Tyler Heights I heard even the most able kindergartners ask “What's that?” to pictures of a mop, a pie, a button, and a pear. DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Literacy Skills) assessment is not supposed to test the students' vocabulary, just their prereading skills, but the items chosen for the test made vocabulary absolutely an issue…Whether or not these kids knew their letters or their sounds, they almost never knew beetle, rooster,or mule, pictures they were supposed to point to when they heard [their beginning sounds]..for the “buh” sound they were marked incorrect if they pointed to the bear (that was “cuh” for “cub”) or the bug [that was “i” for “insect”; the correct answer..was two cars crashing: “buh” for “bump,” as in bumper cars, which judging from their reactions was not something the children of Tyler Heights had had much experience with.

DIBELS is based on speed—how many letters you can identify in one minute, how many words you can use in one minute to summarize a passage you heard…On the section where students had to sound out as many nonsense words as possible in a set amount of time, those who actually knew how to read sometimes took forever sounding out the words, trying over and over again to get what they read to make sense…if they pronounced “zek” with a long E instead of a short one, they were marked off a point, because kindergartners were only supposed to know short vowel sounds.

..Educators across the country complain that challenges for gifted students have been sacrificed in a prioritization that focuses on weaker ones, the children least likely to pass state tests..[One gifted boy] chimed in “ 'Let's review. Let's review.' Even when we remember the stuff we're reviewing.”

..When the advanced kids were given extra work, it felt more of the same—less a challenge than a punishment. Some fifth graders were so unstimulated—one girl spent her days counting paragraphs in the textbook and reading a book stashed in her desk— that they had begun to misbehave. “We used to do projects,” the girl had said. “If I've got it, why should I have to do it over and over and over again?”

”All children can learn,” politicians like to say, and it is true. The problem wasn't that Whitney couldn't learn. It was that a girl who barely knew how to sound out words and possessed a paltry vocabulary couldn't learn third grade material in third grade and couldn't learn fourth-grade material in fourth grade—even though in the new world of school, she was expected to. Seventy-five percent of public school parents think special education students should not necessarily be required to meet the same academic standards as other children ..and all of Whitney's teachers agreed.

The education researcher Mary Kennedy wrote in 2005, “Rarely do reformers seriously think about the array of real students and situations that teachers face in their classrooms.”
I desperately wanted the people who write today's education laws and make judgments about schools to watch Whitney in class. It's one thing to expect teachers to challenge each child, and expect the kids to do their best. It's another to expect that the best will be the same for everyone.

Jim Popham, a former UCLA professor who once helped design exams and now made a living from revealing their faults..said that on some types of tests items concerning the most important content—the material all teachers teach—are often thrown out when the test is revised, because a surplus of correct answers hinders the number crunchers' quest for a wide spread of scores.

Few in the general public see for themselves..beyond the sample items released on the state website. Parents have a right to see their child's answer booklet, though that option is not really advertised and few know about it.

In the national debate on educational accountability, the people who know the most of what goes on in classrooms have the least say. Teachers in general are not a revolutionary bunch..and at any rate national education reforms had rarely before had such an impact on the classroom. So educators hadn't yet found a way to pipe up ..[but] would anyone listen if they had?

Tested; One American school struggles to make the grade
by Linda Perlstein
Henry Holt and company, LLC, New York, 2007
Excerpted by Conny Jensen

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