Teachers Say They're Wary of New Exams |
By Victoria Benning
Washington area teachers are divided on the growing use of standardized tests to evaluate public schools, and suburban teachers are more troubled than those in the District about the high stakes that the student exams now carry, according to a poll by The Washington Post.
The teachers' ambivalence contrasts sharply with the wide consensus among area policymakers that test scores are essential in judging how much students have learned and how well schools are teaching them. Virginia, Maryland and the District all have launched plans to assess schools based largely on test results, and students in all three jurisdictions soon will have to pass rigorous exams to get a high school diploma.
Yet only 34 percent of the Northern Virginia teachers surveyed said the state's Standards of Learning (SOL) testing program should be continued in its current form, while 45 percent said it should be abandoned and 21 percent said it should be continued but changed. The SOL tests, which students took for the first time last year, eventually will determine which students graduate and which schools keep their accreditation.
In Maryland, which is developing new high school graduation exams, 55 percent of the teachers polled were against extending to high schools the comprehensive testing now given in the primary grades, while 39 percent were in favor of it.
In the District, on the other hand, more than seven in 10 of the teachers surveyed said they favor requiring high school students to attain a minimum score on the Stanford 9 Achievement Test or pass a proficiency test in order to graduate. In follow-up interviews, several teachers said the requirement will ease doubts about the value of a D.C. diploma.
The 802 Washington area teachers in The Post's poll were almost evenly split when asked whether they believe that "a program of regular, standardized testing is necessary to hold schools accountable for their students' learning." Slightly more than half (52 percent) agreed with the statement, and 45 percent disagreed.
In interviews conducted after the poll, several teachers said they see standardized tests as just one of many tools for tracking students' progress. They said school officials have placed far too much emphasis on the exams, forcing teachers to discard worthwhile lessons so they can focus on test preparation and encouraging the public to label schools based on test results.
"There's a place for standardized testing if it is done in a positive way and used as a guideline," said Eileen T. Davis, an English teacher at the District's Banneker Senior High School who has taught for 30 years. "But I fear that in our society we become too competitive about scores, and we use these scores in ways that are petty and narrow. The focus all goes onto that score, and we forget about all the other things that are supposed to be weighed in that classroom."
Linda Board, a special education teacher at Fairfax County's South Lakes High School who has taught for 23 years, had a similar view. "If they were going to be used for information purposes, to help students grow and improve, fine," she said of Virginia's SOL tests. "But as the be-all and end-all they are now, no, I don't support them."
Several teachers also said it is unfair to penalize teachers or principals for poor student performance on such tests. They said the scores can be affected by factors over which educators have no control, such as home conditions and lack of school resources.
Teachers who expressed support for the tougher policies on testing and accountability said they ensure that all students are getting comparable instruction and help boost public confidence in schools.
"I think we need to begin to make students accountable. And as a school system we also should be accountable to the public," said Suzan Falls, an English teacher at Parkdale High School in Prince George's County who has taught for nine years. "I see a need for it, but it has to be a very well-designed test."
Melissa Peroutseas, who teaches French at Fairfax's Herndon High School, said Virginia's testing program will add focus to teachers' lessons. "Ultimately, it's a good idea – a way to get everybody on the same page," said Peroutseas, a teacher for 17 years.
School officials, asked to comment on the poll results, said many teachers are apprehensive because the testing programs are relatively new and because the consequences for low-performing schools to some degree remain uncertain.
Kirk Schroder, president of the Virginia Board of Education, noted that the board has not decided what should happen to a school that loses its accreditation, a penalty that the state will not impose at any school until 2007 at the earliest.
"Right now, I think the fear of the unknown is driving that response," Schroder said, referring to the majority of Northern Virginia teachers who said the SOL tests should be dropped or revised. "It's our duty as a board to implement the testing program and accountability phase in a fair and reasonable manner. My experience is that if the board does that, [teachers] will support it."
Schroder said standardized tests provide a clear, objective measure of whether schools are meeting academic standards. In the past, he said, "the lack of an objective measure has allowed a lot of our children to fall through the cracks."
Virginia's SOL exams are given annually to students in grades three, five and eight and in high school. The Maryland School Performance Assessment (MSPAP) exams are administered each year to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, and schools that consistently do poorly face the threat of takeover by the state. In the District, students in grades one through 11 take the Stanford 9 test, and principals and teachers are evaluated based partly on whether their students' scores have improved.
Gary Galluzzo, dean of the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University, said it is not surprising that many teachers have doubts about plans that rely heavily on test scores to judge their school and their teaching ability. "There is still distrust of the process, right or wrong," he said.
Galluzzo and other education analysts said that teachers generally are able to put aside any concerns they have about the value of a test when they are in the classroom and that it has little effect on how well they prepare their students.
But the new emphasis on testing may discourage prospective teachers from entering the field, said Gary Natriello, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College.
College students traditionally have been lured into teaching by the prospect of shaping young minds, Natriello said. They may be less enthused if they feel that the job is "just bumping up a test score a point or two."
Six in 10 of the teachers polled by The Post agreed that "standardized testing is needed to measure how much students have learned," and about four in 10 disagreed with that statement. But by a majority of 67 percent to 30 percent, they also agreed that "emphasizing testing leads schools to teach their students how to test well rather than to master the subject matter."
"I have seen a real push toward teaching to that test that depresses me," said Elizabeth Waters, a first-year English teacher at Arlington's Washington-Lee High School.
After figures were released in January showing that nearly 98 percent of Virginia public schools had failed to meet state standards on the first round of SOL testing, Washington-Lee teachers were required to shift gears and focus intensely on preparing students for this spring's exams, Waters said.
"Basically, the message came down from the administration to stop whatever you're doing and teach what's on the [test] blueprints," she said.
Beginning in 2004, Virginia students will have to pass the high school SOL exams to graduate. Maryland students will be required to pass that state's new graduation tests starting with the Class of 2005, and the District's requirement for high school students to earn a minimum score on the Stanford 9 test or pass a proficiency exam takes effect with the Class of 2002.
Some teachers said reducing success in high school to one exam will cast an overly narrow shadow over what is supposed to be a broad-ranging educational experience. Several also said they fear that teachers will be blamed unfairly when students flunk the graduation tests.
"A teacher who might be neglectful of a student in the fall might wreck a kid who will take the test in May under [another teacher]. That's the thing I'm most afraid of," said Brian Monk, who has taught English and journalism at Montgomery County's Quince Orchard High School for two years.
Sheryl Sherfey, a math teacher at Herndon High with 21 years of teaching experience, said teachers can only do so much. "There are some students who, no matter what you do, just aren't going to get it, and I don't want to be looked upon as a bad teacher because of that," she said.
D.C. teachers, however, favored their school system's new graduation requirement by 72 percent to 27 percent. Several said it would provide students with a much-needed do-or-die incentive to buckle down.
Richard A. Graham, a 22-year English teacher who works at the District's Eastern High, said he supports the policy because "now you have a goal, you have an objective." At the same time, some D.C. teachers predicted that many students will fail to meet the requirement because they are too far behind to catch up.
In follow-up interviews, several D.C. teachers expressed doubts about the District's new policy of using Stanford 9 scores to evaluate teachers and principals.
Raymond Miller, a social studies teacher at the District's Cardozo Senior High, said low test scores stem mostly from meager school resources and students who are raised without respect for teachers or motivation for study.
"It's not our fault. The press beats teachers down. Superintendents and all those people, they're constantly beating us down because the child can't reach a certain score on a standardized test," Miller said. "All we can do is put a Band-Aid on. Sooner or later, that Band-Aid is going to disintegrate."
D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said she was pleased with the poll result showing teacher support for the new graduation requirement. As for teachers' concern about being judged by test scores, she said the system will be fair because they will be measured by whether their students progress, not whether they score at the top level.
But Ackerman said she understands teachers' wariness, given that the stricter approach on school accountability is so new. "We've gotten away with making excuses," she said, "and now the public is saying, 'No more.' "
© 1999 The Washington Post Company