A Concentrated Approach to Exams

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007

The principal of Earle B. Wood Middle School in Rockville gathered teachers and handed out a list of all the black, Hispanic, special-education and limited-English-speaking students who would take the Maryland School Assessment, the measure of success or failure under the federal No Child Left Behind mandate.

Principal Renee Foose told teachers to cross off the names of students who had virtually no chance of passing and those certain to pass. Those who remained, children on the cusp between success and failure, would receive 45 minutes of intensive test preparation four days a week, until further notice.

Under President Bush's education initiative, hundreds of middle-class suburban schools like Wood, with a history of solid test scores, are at risk of academic failure. They must address nagging achievement gaps that cut along racial and socioeconomic lines or face the penalties and possible "restructuring" that the federal law prescribes.

The coming weeks will bring a battery of tests -- Virginia's Standards of Learning exams, the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System and the Maryland School Assessment -- that will determine whether schools and students have made "adequate yearly progress" under the law. Maryland's testing begins March 12.

Because these "high-stakes" tests exert unprecedented influence on public education, principals and teachers are struggling with the ethics of test preparation: Is it right to give extra help to some students and withhold it from others based on who is likely to pass? Is it acceptable to set aside regular instruction for lessons on how to solve multiple-choice questions? Is it all right to forsake free-form poetry for a steady diet of heavily formatted reading passages?

That is what some teachers say has happened at Wood. Their accounts and interviews with Foose offer a glimpse at a kind of test-prep triage that analysts think is increasingly common at many schools but is rarely discussed in public.

"We're not talking about instruction," said Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, who is investigating teacher concerns at the school. "We're talking about a narrow set of skills that is really about passing a test."

Foose, in telephone and e-mail interviews over several weeks, said that a few unsupportive employees were distorting the school's efforts to help students with the greatest needs.

"No student here is excluded from any instruction whatsoever," she said.

Foose, a former state trooper who became Wood's principal last fall, explained the process:

"Our school improvement goal is 80 percent of all students pass" the assessment, she wrote in one e-mail. "We were determining how many students we know will pass based on their classroom performance."

All students received extra support, she wrote in another e-mail, "some more than others." Children with little English ability or severe cognitive disabilities were excluded, she said, because they get intensive help through regular studies.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company