I wanted to praise the D.C. school system for doing such a wonderful job raising student test scores, as reported last week. I used to get upset at headlines that said, in effect, "Blacks Are Dumb, Tests Show." Now the news read more to my liking, but as I sought the secret of this success I came to find that some students didn't believe they were as smart as the scores showed.
At one of the city's premier elementary schools, Peabody on Capitol Hill, a large number of third graders scored on a ninth-grade level. Holy Einstein! I had to talk to some of these child prodigies. To my dismay, even some of the best and the brightest were confused.
Students that I talked to said they were concerned that the extraordinary test preparation had somehow skewed the results. It was like a game, some said, employing various kinds of sample tests and heavy coaching on various strategies for eliminating multiple choices and loss of time.
One parent of a third grader, after learning that their daughter had scored a 9.8 (almost 10th grade), told me somewhat incredulously, "My girl is bright, but no way is she a genius."
Now I pick on Peabody simply because it is one of the best--its scores traditionally higher than other elementary schools, its principal, Viola Jackson, unquestionably among the brightest and indeed most able school administrators in the system. Peabody won this year's Superintendent's Golden School Award for Parental Support after more than ll2 parents volunteered to teach and tutor.
I'm bending over backwards to point out that this public school is as good as a $5,000-a-year private school, with teachers that money can't buy. I don't want to mess up a good thing, only to expose the roots of something that could well undermine these extraordinary efforts.
Principal Jackson's mandate to teachers this year was specific: raise those test scores. The year before, she had set a goal requiring 80 percent of her 300 students to score above the national average. They didn't quite make it, but her faculty apologized in a letter that promised they would do better this year.
Starting in February, teachers began placing heavy emphasis on test-taking skills. Students in the third and sixth grades were tested three days a week for 45 minutes in preparation for the tests they would take this spring. Stop watches and sample tests, even previously used standardized tests, were employed in the preparation.
Last month, teachers attended a Regional Institute Workshop on Test Taking to learn "strategies" for helping students improve test scores.
The pay off was spectacular--with 96 percent of the sixth graders at Peabody scoring above the national average. Third graders averaged a 7.3, compared with 4.5 for last year's class. It was a three grade jump in one year.
I don't have anything against teaching students how to take tests. You have to take them to get into almost everything these days, from college to the Army. Frankly, it would come as a relief to know that all that was wrong with urban public education was that a kid couldn't interpret a multiple choice format or couldn't gauge how much time to spend on a section of a test. But I'm not convinced.
Jackson points out that teaching a student how to take a test is one thing; teaching them the answer is another.
But based on my conversations with some of these students, I wonder if this increased emphasis on test scores could lead teachers to cross that fine line between helping students learn and helping them score.
"I'm very competitive, you might say hung up on tests," Jackson said during a recent interview. "Like it or not, people judge a school by its test scores."
It seems they may come to judge a teacher's merit, and pay, by the same test scores. And it would be a shame if a school that already has teachers that money can't buy turns into one that money can.
Given the way I react to certain headlines, and the reaction of detractors in Congress, I understand Jackson's concern. The city school system has a lot to prove. But I hope the emphasis stays on proving it to the children and does not lead to fooling ourselves.