COMET • Vol. 3, No. 21 – 29 May 2002


(1) “Schools Challenge Mandatory Testing” by Duke Helfand

Source:  Los Angeles Times – 29 May 2002


Two of California’s biggest school districts took preliminary steps Tuesday toward changing or abandoning the much-criticized Stanford 9 test and California’s new high school exit exam.

The Los Angeles Board of Education decided to study alternative assessments for gauging student academic achievement. The San Francisco school board introduced a nearly identical measure as two of its members urged an end to the tests altogether. But it’s unclear whether the actions will amount to anything more than a protest because the state’s 1,000 school districts are required by federal and state laws to administer the exams or ones like them. Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer urged the school board not to challenge state testing rules.

Some school leaders in the two cities argued that standardized tests perpetuate discrimination against poor and minority children, many of whom attend crowded schools and do not speak English fluently.

“Standardized tests do not necessarily measure what our kids are learning in the classroom but [reflect] socioeconomic status and resources in schools,” said Jose Huizar, vice president of the Los Angeles board. “A majority of our kids don’t have the life experience that these tests are testing.”

The proposal passed 4 to 1, with David Tokofsky voting against it, saying that he fears the district would be breaking state law. (Marlene Canter abstained and Mike Lansing was absent.) The measure stopped short of calling for an end to the Stanford 9 and the high school exit exam. It instructed district staff to develop alternative ways within six months to measure academic progress. Those changes could include supplements to the current exams…

A Davis spokeswoman defended the tests as a fair and equitable way to ensure that schools deliver a quality education to all of the state’s 6 million public school students.

“I think it would be a crying shame if two of the largest school districts in the state decided that their kids are not worth testing and their schools aren’t worth being held accountable for educating their students,” said Hilary McLean, a Davis spokeswoman.

Los Angeles and San Francisco join a growing national backlash against standardized testing. Community groups and educators in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and elsewhere have voiced concerns about high-stakes exams that determine the fate of students, schools and entire districts.

The critics note that African Americans and Latinos have for decades scored lower than whites and Asian Americans on national tests of reading, math and science.

In Los Angeles, the sharply worded measure criticized the Stanford 9 and high school exit exam for discriminating against students with limited English skills.

The measure also said that district schools in poor and minority neighborhoods have fewer resources–including a shortage of materials, college prep classes and certificated teachers. Relying on such tests, the proposals said, unfairly penalizes students in these schools. “There are huge inequities that exist in this district for poor children and immigrant children,” board member Genethia Hayes, one of the measure’s sponsors, said during the meeting…

“I do not believe that we as a district should do anything here today to encourage parents and youngsters to believe that this is a racist test and we shouldn’t use it,” Romer said. “The consequence is that they won’t be encouraged to prepare for it and pass it. The people who will be hurt will be the students themselves.”

About 250 students, parents and teachers from a grass-roots group called Coalition for Educational Justice rallied outside school district headquarters as the school board debated the measure. The protesters marched with signs and banners that said “End Racist Tests–City Schools Deserve the Best,” and chanted: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the Stanford 9 has got to go.”

After the vote, the protesters cheered. “What just happened in there was a big victory for racial justice,” Alex Caputo Pearl, an organizer, said after the board vote.

Later in the day, the San Francisco school board introduced a nearly identical measure modeled after the Los Angeles motion. The San Francisco board is expected to vote on its version next month.

While the San Francisco proposal also stopped short of calling for an end to standardized tests, the board members who sponsored it said that is their ultimate goal.

“We certainly don’t want to be seen as not wanting accountability,” said board member Mark Sanchez, who taught elementary school in San Francisco before joining the board. “We need to have measures of how the kids are doing. But I absolutely reject this testing system. It’s punitive.”

San Francisco has already waged one fight over the Stanford 9. After the statewide exam was introduced in 1997, the school district refused to test its limited-English students who had less than 30 months of English instruction.

The California Department of Education sued the district, which relented in 2000 in exchange for the state loosening the rules that let schools inform parents of their right to have their children opt out of the exam.

In an interview Tuesday, Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, called the Stanford 9 imperfect, but said the state is moving away from such standardized tests in favor of those based on California’s new academic standards.

Plus, the Stanford 9 is being replaced next year with a comparable exam from the Educational Testing Service.

Still, Eastin took issue with critics who of standardized testing. “It’s racist to say we can’t expect much of poor kids,” Eastin said. “A standardized test is not only justified but required under the law.”

(2) “Students Prep for Stanford 9” by Sonia Giordani

Source:  Los Angeles Daily News – 24 May 2002


…Standardized test scores have gained widespread media attention since they became the cornerstone of the state’s Academic Performance Index, a ranking of public schools established in April 1999. Until last year, the index was based solely on Stanford 9 scores. Now the rankings also reflect the results of a written exam taken by fourth- and seventh-graders. In coming years, other factors will be added.

Recognizing the test’s importance, school leaders and parents have sought to motivate students with rousing pep rallies and even bagels and orange juice. Educators say such tactics are necessary to entice college-bound students to do well on the Stanford 9, which carries no consequence for them, unlike the life-altering SAT college admissions exam…

And while teachers say they strive to balance test-taking skills with core subjects like math and English, some parents question whether the emphasis on the Stanford 9 has exacted too great a toll on their children…

State education officials maintain the test should not interfere with classroom curriculum, and California law prohibits formal test preparation such as practice Stanford 9 tests.

Linda Lownes, a consultant with the California Department of Education’s standards and assessment division, said the test is tied to grade-level content standards — subjects every student must learn before advancing to the next grade. And she noted that the Stanford 9 will be replaced next year by a new exam that will be even more closely aligned with state instructional standards.

“If the academic standards set in this state were taught to mastery, every child would have what they need to know and wouldn’t have to worry about this test,” Lownes said…



(1) “Up Close and Personal” by Lynn Olson

Source: Education Week – 22 May 2002


…Regardless of the form they take–weekly quizzes, end-of-semester tests, teacher questioning, comments and grades on homework, oral presentations, projects, or portfolios–classroom assessments are the most common, and some would say most ignored, kind of educational measurement.

While most public attention these days is riveted on the results of large-scale testing programs, research suggests that the classroom assessments teachers use day in and day out provide one of the most powerful tools available for improving student achievement.

“We have strong evidence that high-quality classroom assessment improves learning tremendously,” says Lorrie A. Shepard, the dean of the education college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, “possibly more effectively than any other sort of teaching intervention.”

Research has found that good classroom assessments can help teachers plan the next step in instruction, clarify the learning goals for students, and provide effective, frequent feedback about how to improve and actively engage youngsters in their own learning. Studies also have found that more demanding, intellectually challenging classroom assignments are linked with higher-quality student work.

The United Kingdom’s Assessment Reform Group calls such formative assessments, ones primarily used to guide rather than sum up instruction, “assessments for learning,” to distinguish them from “assessments of learning.” A review the group commissioned found that improved formative assessments typically yield gains in student achievement roughly equivalent to one to two grade levels in learning. Equally compelling, improved classroom assessments help low achievers the most, thereby reducing achievement gaps.

In contrast, state testing programs often fail to provide teachers with useful information.

“Large-scale-assessment programs are never going to provide teachers with the information they need, because by the time teachers get the information back, they’ve already moved on,” argues Carl D. “Nick” Novak, the director of evaluation for the Lincoln district. “When teachers need to make a decision, they need to make it right then. And they’ll make it on the basis of whatever information is available”…

The concerted attention that Lincoln, and the state of Nebraska generally, have decided to focus on improving classroom assessment is in many ways revolutionary.

Back in 1993, the school system here began a periodic review of its assessment program. “We were not only heavily, but totally, reliant on norm-referenced, standardized achievement tests,” says Marilyn S. Moore, the associate superintendent for instruction. “If someone said to me, ‘How well are your kids doing in 7th grade math?'” she chuckles, “the only answer I could give them was to say the MAT [Metropolitan Achievement Test] scores in 7th grade were X.”

Coincidentally, the school system had been running a series of institutes for teachers about assessment. “It quickly became apparent how little we knew about classroom-assessment practices,” Novak says. “We had a very good group of teachers, but they were largely naive about assessment practices.”

Lincoln’s teachers were hardly alone. Currently, only 14 states explicitly require teachers to demonstrate competence in assessment to earn a teaching license, according to a report from the National Research Council. And only three states demand that principals demonstrate expertise in assessment…

Partly as a result, studies have found that teachers tend to devise tests that emphasize students’ factual knowledge or rote learning, and frequently mirror the multiple-choice and short-answer formats of their state’s large-scale testing programs. Marks and grades on assignments often fail to provide students with guidance about how to improve, while teachers’ questioning techniques too often limit students’ responses.

To counter such practices, Lincoln’s 1993 assessment study made a series of recommendations that provided the catalyst for much of the work now in place. It advocated that the district set up a “more balanced assessment program” that relied less on norm-referenced tests. That suggestion led to a major effort by the district to craft its own tests, designed to measure its academic-content standards and written chiefly by classroom teachers. Many of the district’s tests take the form of classroom assessments that individual teachers give at the end of a unit, or when they perceive students are ready. The report also recommended that the district increase support for “the improvement of instructional assessment at the classroom and building levels.”

So in 1994, the Lincoln district applied for and won a three-year, $247,000 grant from the state to improve classroom-assessment practices. One of the primary vehicles the district has used since to enhance educators’ expertise is the Assessment Literacy Learning Team.

The concept, developed by Richard J. Stiggins, the president of the Assessment Training Institute in Portland, Ore., involves small groups of teachers, and ideally administrators, that meet eight to 12 times a year to read about assessment, design classroom-assessment materials and practices, try them out, and then come back together to share, analyze, and refine what the members have done. Each team member also completes assignments to begin building an assessment portfolio for classroom use…

Before Wendi Herbin, a mathematics teacher at Lincoln Southeast High School, joined an assessment-literacy team, assessment was the last task she focused on in preparing a lesson.

“It used to be, ‘Oh, the quiz is the last thing you throw together,'” she muses. “Now,” she says, “I write my quizzes before I teach. I’m very clear about what I want to teach before I start teaching.”

Those goals are also clearer to her students.

One recent day, Herbin begins a lesson for her advanced-algebra class by putting the day’s learning goal on the overhead projector–a regular part of her practice. Before launching into problem sets, she gives the students examples of how the math might be used to solve situations in daily life. Would a taller runner or a shorter runner have an advantage for speed? Would one skydiver or a group of skydivers in formation fall more quickly? “We’re going to actually attack those specific problems tomorrow,” she reassures them, “but we need to do some background work today.”

The 10-year veteran also gives students practice quizzes before every exam so they know “exactly what they’re going to be assessed on and how,” she says. “There are no secrets.”

As part of such an open approach, students keep portfolios of their mathematics work that allow them to keep track of their grades. They also have a copy of the districtwide objectives for the course. Before each quiz or test, they can look at the objectives and conduct a quick self-check of which concepts and skills they have mastered and which need more attention.

Perhaps most welcome, from the students’ perspective, is that Herbin allows them to retake different forms of each test up to four times, as long as they provide evidence beforehand that they’ve actually reviewed the material.

“We have opportunities to retake all the tests and can work to get the grade that you want,” explains Brad Claussen, a junior. “It’s set up so you get the grade that you work for. There’s always room for improvement, if you want to take the time.”

Herbin helped pilot the district’s assessment-literacy teams, which she describes as “the best discussions I’ve ever had,” in large part because the experience was truly applicable to her work…

Unlike in most states, where Lincoln’s efforts would be bucking the tide of high-stakes, state-level testing, Nebraska’s commissioner of education is himself an ardent supporter of district- and classroom-level assessments.

Nebraska is the only state besides Iowa that has not mandated a uniform, statewide exam. Nebraska has a 4th grade writing test.

Commissioner Doug Christensen, a towering, blunt-spoken Midwesterner, describes state tests as “scorekeeping devices,” rather than tools that can help teachers in the classroom. “You take an athletic contest,” begins Christensen, a former high school coach who played football, basketball, and baseball in high school and college. “Just knowing the final score at the end of the game doesn’t tell you anything about how the game was played; it just tells you whether you won or lost. So coaches aren’t able to do much about their coaching based on scores. They do it based upon the data they collect on what happens during the game and during practices.”

The same, he argues, is true of instruction. It’s the day- to-day work in the classroom that counts, not the scores on once-a-year, state- level tests. Besides, he adds, “I’m opposed to absolutely anything that removes teacher judgment from decisionmaking”…

Under Nebraska’s STARS program–for School-based Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System–each district is required to set learning goals or standards for what all students should know, or use the state’s model standards. Districts may use whatever measures they wish to gauge student achievement against those standards, including teachers’ classroom assessments.

To ensure quality, each district must submit an assessment portfolio to the state; the portfolio then undergoes an external review. In addition, districts must include one of five national, standardized tests in their assessment systems. That way, notes Christensen, “they can’t claim 90 percent of the kids are proficient in reading at the 4th grade, if their norm-referenced scores are at the 40th percentile.”

Districts must release their assessment results to the public. The state also publicly rates each district on the quality of its assessment program. Nebraska released its first state-level report card last year, based on a combination of district, state, and national assessments, including scores on the ACT, the college- admissions exam taken by 74 percent of Nebraska’s high school graduates, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal program that tests a sampling of students in key subjects.

“The way Nebraska has approached assessment has made it possible for school districts to do this,” says Philip H. Schoo, the superintendent of the Lincoln schools since 1985. “We’re not afraid of accountability, but we don’t think measuring it nationally with a single test, or even a statewide test, is going to accomplish it”…

“We wanted a system where the quality of classroom assessment was so good that you could aggregate it up for accountability results,” says Christensen. “That’s our goal”…

Though the Lincoln public schools have focused on improving district- and classroom-level assessments, the district also has seen gains on large-scale test scores, which officials attribute, at least in part, to their new assessment system. Between 1997 and 2001, the scores of Lincoln’s 3rd graders on the Metropolitan Achievement Test, a national norm-referenced exam, jumped from the 52nd to the 69th percentile in reading and from the 55th to the 81st percentile in mathematics. Sixth graders’ scores climbed from the 54th to the 62nd percentile in reading and the 53rd to the 71st percentile in math. MAT scores for 8th graders improved at a more modest rate, from the 57th to the 62nd percentile in reading and the 65th to the 71st percentile in math.

Even so, many of the district’s efforts, such as the learning teams, have yet to reach most teachers. And there’s been less work on certain aspects of formative assessment, such as teachers’ questioning and observation techniques…

Commissioner Christensen estimates that perhaps 75 of the state’s 535 districts have done a masterful job of combining classroom- based, district-developed, and nationally norm-referenced tests into an assessment system. With 400 districts having fewer than 500 students, districts are going to have to collaborate. And they are going to have to focus less on creating new, district-level tests and more on building upon the tests that teachers already use in their classes, he said.

The assessment-literacy teams also barely scratch the surface in terms of the knowledge teachers need about good formative assessment. To address that problem, three years ago, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln launched what it calls an Assessment Cohort, which provides teachers with a college-level course about classroom assessment.

The program consists of 18 hours of graduate-level courses for practicing teachers, spanning two summers, and a practicum during the school year. Both Abrahams and Herbin are part of the cohort. The program received an award this year from the National Council for Measurement in Education…

But perhaps the biggest challenge is maintaining a steadfast focus on improving classroom assessment in the face of so much high-stakes, large-scale testing. The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 requires states to administer annual reading and math tests to each student in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school.

“If the rules of the game are how you do on the state test–or on a national test, God forbid–then that’s what you play,” laments Christensen. “I think it’s very hard for the day-to-day activities of the classroom teacher to matter as much as it ought to matter when there’s a big game to be played later on.”

“One of my worries,” agrees Shepard, “is that people are just going to take large-scale assessments and administer them in classrooms and assume that’s what’s meant by classroom assessment.”

She recommends that states embed high-quality classroom assessments in the professional development teachers get on curriculum linked to state standards.

In addition, several prominent groups are calling for a better balance between classroom and large- scale testing. A report commissioned by five national education associations, “Building Tests to Support Instruction and Accountability,” advocates that states provide educators with optional classroom-assessment procedures that teachers can use to measure students’ progress in meeting content standards not measured by state tests. And a report by the National Research Council calls for shifting more attention and resources toward classroom assessments as part of establishing a comprehensive, coherent assessment system. Several organizations also are working with states and districts to help teachers improve their assessment practices. And earlier this month, a group representing 18 national education organizations approved standards for student evaluation.

“It’s really easy for the emphasis to be on standardized testing because that’s the most visible,” says Lukin, Lincoln’s assessment specialist. “That’s what grabs headlines. And when you have limited time and resources, it’s hard for that not to suck all the resources you have.”

But in Lincoln and Nebraska, at least for now, teachers know they have an ally.

“When you hear the commissioner of education saying over and over how much he values what teachers do, and the importance of classroom-based assessment,” says Abrahams, “then you think, ‘I’d better pay attention.'”

(2) “Single-Gender Schools Gaining Favor, Success” by Massie Ritsch

Source:  Los Angeles Times – 28 May 2002


…Congress and officials in the Bush administration recently signaled that single-sex classes should not be confined to private schools and that revised regulations will lift the legal cloud…

“Our effort here is not to say that single-sex education is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” said Brian Jones, general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education, at a briefing this month. Rather, he said, the government is encouraging innovation and flexibility, and will not fund schools that extend advantages to one gender without offering comparable treatment to the other.

This shift in federal opinion is the most dramatic in the field since Title IX became law in 1972 to give female students equal access to education. Along with the offer of millions of dollars in federal grants for experimental programs, the policy change has invigorated the single-sex movement–and the debate over whether it really helps youngsters…

California attracted much attention in the late 1990s for its experiment with separate academies for boys and girls. When the state funding ran out, all but one of the six schools closed. Students at the remaining San Francisco 49ers Academies in East Palo Alto have improved their grades and behavior and are less likely to skip school or drop out, the school reports….