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Those Who Pass Classes But Fail Tests Cry Foul

Sylvia James, 12, a seventh-grader at Saunders Middle School in Prince William County, got a B-plus in her math class last year but flunked the state test, and she is not alone. Behind her is her grandmother, Sylvia Cowans.
Sylvia James, 12, a seventh-grader at Saunders Middle School in Prince William County, got a B-plus in her math class last year but flunked the state test, and she is not alone. Behind her is her grandmother, Sylvia Cowans. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Sylvia James hardly considers herself clueless in mathematics. After all, she finished sixth grade with a B-plus in the subject and made the Honor Roll, which she saw as a victory in a challenging year of fraction conversion and decimal placement.

But what happened when she took the state math test?

She flunked it.

Now, by that measure, Virginia considers the 12-year-old below par in math.

"I was kind of shocked," said Sylvia, who attends Herbert J. Saunders Middle School in Prince William County. "I just thought I was going to pass it because I always usually pass everything else. I guess I went through the test pretty quickly."

Many students in the Washington region are suffering from academic split personalities. Driven by the federal No Child Left Behind law and tougher state diploma standards, the testing blitz has left these students in a curious limbo: They pass their classes with B's and C's yet fail the state exams.

These cases surface frequently, with one local high school reporting, for example, that a quarter of students in beginning algebra passed the course but failed the state test.

The discrepancies have emerged amid fierce debate over the role of testing in public education. Supporters of the federal law say standardized exams are the best way to raise academic standards and the only way to hold schools accountable for results. Critics complain that time spent on test preparation saps classroom creativity and that test scores are just one indicator among many of student achievement.

Students and teachers offer an array of explanations for why test scores sometimes fail to match up with grades. Some students don't take the exams seriously. Some freeze up. Still others trip over unfamiliar language. And teachers sometimes are not prepped in what the exams cover, especially when the tests are new. Occasionally, some school officials suspect, classes aren't rigorous enough to prepare students adequately.

Whatever the reason, the fact that some bright students struggle on state exams upends the perception that only the worst students fail them.

"This is a warning sign that there's something out of tilt in the system," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, which tracks how states implement the federal law.

Thelaw requires annual state testing in reading and math for all students from grades 3 to 8 and at least once in high school. The results are used to rate schools, and those that fall short of adequate progress are threatened with sanctions. States often add more tests in high school that students must pass to graduate.


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