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A Concentrated Approach to Exams
Rockville School's Efforts Raise Questions of Test-Prep Ethics

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.

Then, last week, she said that the special lessons had been halted.

Another Montgomery middle school principal, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of her being fired, described the pressures that she and others face:

"You have to be smart about what you do," she said. "Because, realistically, I don't want to think I could lose my job, but I could lose my job if the school doesn't make [adequate yearly progress] for too long. Realistically, we could all lose our jobs."

Wood serves a community of single-family homes and apartments typical in a dense suburb. Its student population is approximately 44 percent white, 23 percent Hispanic, 19 percent black, 12 percent Asian and 1 percent Native American. One student out of four qualifies for federal meal subsidies.

Last spring, 68 percent of Wood students rated at least proficient on state tests, surpassing the state average of 65 percent. But the school failed to make adequate yearly progress, the federal standard for success, because special-education students, those with limited English proficiency and those receiving federal meal subsidies fell behind in reading scores.

Foose came to Wood to set things right.

A veteran principal, who retired last spring, had allowed discipline to lapse, said two Wood employees and Cullison, who has spoken to other staffers.

The laxity extended to testing season, one teacher said: When students sat for the assessments, "kids who were fully capable of passing, they just didn't care."

Parents saw immediate improvement under Foose. Student suspensions fell by more than half after she arrived.

"She is very direct. She is very focused. She is very determined," said Pauline Lamberg, Wood's PTA president.

The principal's approach to state testing was, by all accounts, focused and determined.

Test preparations began in earnest, the staffers said, on the day faculty returned from winter break. In separate meetings with the English and math teachers, Foose handed out lists of "subgroup" students and outlined her plan:

"We were told to cross off the kids who would never pass," one staffer said. "We were told to cross off the kids who, if we handed them the test tomorrow, they would pass. And then the kids who were left over, those were the kids we were supposed to focus on."

The next week, teachers regularly began pulling selected students from social studies, science, gym, art and other elective classes to work in small groups to prepare for the test. They used test-prep workbooks and sample material from the state education department's Web site.

The principal and some employees disagree on how often students were removed from classes for test-preparation. Foose said that many teachers delivered extra instruction in the classroom.

Employees say that Foose and one of her administrators added to the urgency by telling students and parents that those who failed the assessments might be held back. The principal said the comments came from an assistant principal and were more about students' long-term academic prospects.

Foose and her supporters say the remedial lessons ultimately did much good.

"Trust me -- you want students to be able to pass a basic comprehension test," Deborah Longo, leader of the eighth-grade instructional team, said in an e-mail.

Others, inside and outside the school, said they thought the exercise crossed a line.

"They're not teaching the material," Cullison said. "They're teaching them how to take a test, which is a huge disservice to these kids."

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