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.
Because the exams can have such high stakes for students and for schools, many seemingly solid achievers who have failed the state tests are forced into remediation courses to help them pass on the next try.
And some students worry: Am I not as smart as I thought?
Brittanie Morris, 14, a freshman at John F. Kennedy High School in Montgomery County, is taking a catch-up math class after school because she did not pass her Maryland exam last year.
"I got a B for the total year in algebra last year, but this makes me feel uncomfortable . . . and you feel kinda slow," Brittanie said. "It feels weird to be in the class because it makes you feel like you didn't pass, when you did."
Brittanie's mother, Kay Morton, was befuddled when she opened the mail and saw the results of her daughter's standardized math exam.
"It's hard to understand a situation where you can have an Honor Roll student who doesn't pass the test. She's been an Honor Roll student since the sixth grade," she said. "I can't say I really hold her teacher accountable. . . . I just accepted the fact that Brittanie may not be a child that tests well."
The data available on these "pass/fail" students -- most of whom apparently are getting C's or better in their courses-- vary across the region. But a glance at local schools shows that the number of such students is sizable.
At Kennedy High in Silver Spring, 25 percent of the 147 students who took first-year algebra in 2005-06 passed the course but failed the Maryland High School Assessment in that subject, said Reginald Wright, the school's math department chairman. In all of Montgomery, about 12 percent of the 10,720 students who took first-year algebra last year passed the course but failed the exam, according to county schools spokesman Brian Edwards.
In the District, about one-fifth of the 70 students in fourth through sixth grades at Tyler Elementary School passed their classes but failed the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exam, according to principal Michelle Pierre-Farid.
In Fairfax County, a survey of a remediation class at Herndon High School was revealing. Seven of the 11 students had earned a C or better in English or math but failed at least one of the corresponding state Standards of Learning exams, according to the school's assessment coach, Sharon Bowen.
Defenders of standardized testing say the exams function like audits, revealing gaps in the curriculum that must be filled if the students are to reach high academic standards. Critics say that the differences between scores and grades show the fallibility of the exams, which provide only a snapshot of what a student knows.
Some students who sail through courses crash on standardized exams because they are not native English speakers.
Qasim Bilal, 20, a native Pakistani, graduated last spring from Herndon High. He said that during his junior and senior years, he failed the state English reading test four times and the English writing test twice, even though his course grades ranged from a C-plus to an A. Bilal had trouble on the tests answering poetry questions and with interpreting the differences between first-, second- and third-person narratives.
"I had doubts about myself," Bilal said, adding that his parents wondered whether his grades were justified. He asked his teachers whether they had been too lenient. "But they said they don't do that. They said they were giving me what I deserved."
Why the discrepancy? Teacher Nancy Hencken said she thought Bilal was an articulate student who easily demonstrated his knowledge of the subject matter in class. During class exams, Hencken noted, Bilal and other students could ask her for guidance. That wasn't allowed under the state's strict testing format.
Helen George, a math teacher at Parkland Middle School in Montgomery, said her former student Brittanie deserved her high grades.
"What was tested and what was going on in the classroom was not really matching," George said. "I guess I had to reexamine what was going on."
Schools take several approaches to help students who fail standardized exams. In the District, some schools may offer special remediation classes, said William Wilhoyte, a regional superintendent. But in general, he said, schools prefer to help students in their regular classes. They do so by grouping students by ability, based on their performance on certain test questions.
In Maryland, students starting with the Class of 2009 are required to pass state tests to earn a diploma. So Kennedy High compels students who failed a state test to stay after school for remediation twice a week. Virginia's tests have similar high stakes, so Herndon High students who fail their state tests must take classes titled "Developing Literacies" or "Expanding Literacies."
Some students placed in remediation appear more than eager to proclaim their academic credentials. During a recent catch-up math class at Saunders Middle School, seventh-grader Lexie Hunt wanted to share some good news with teacher Pamela Childress.
"Ms. Childress, I made Honor Roll!" Lexie said. "In this school, do they give out bumper stickers for that?"