Suitland High School officials took one look at their students' dismal standardized test scores last year and realized the desperate need to boost their school's reputation before it would become a Prince George's County magnet facility this fall.
So Suitland undertook a comprehensive plan of attack that began with the hiring of a full-time testing specialist. Underachieving students were pulled out of regular classes for skills training, the civics curriculum was redesigned to fit test questions, and special education students were signed up for test-preparation workshops.
The tactics worked: 81 percent of Suitland's ninth graders passed the state-required citizenship test this year, up from last year's 38 percent; 87 percent passed the writing test, up from last year's 51.8 percent. Officials were so proud that the news was announced on the school's public address system and emblazoned on an outdoor billboard.
Suitland's aggressive pursuit of higher scores is one example of a growing emphasis being placed on standardized tests in school systems throughout the Washington area.
Many view test scores as a report card on school reform efforts, but some critics question whether the attention to tests is overblown and whether it is appropriate to rewrite curricula or take other drastic steps to raise scores on what is a narrow measure of how well schools are doing.
"In my view, the impact comes primarily in . . . narrowing the curriculum, and to a certain extent stagnating attempts at innovative ways of teaching," said Gerald Bracey, former Virginia state director of testing who works for the Cherry Creek, Colo., school system. "There is increased pressure to teach to the test."
There is no doubt that the annual test numbers exercise mastery over reputations, curricula and, sometimes, school funding and employment.
"I know superintendents who have lost their jobs in some areas because scores were lower than in neighboring districts," said Fairfax County Superintendent Robert R. Spillane. Some school systems use test scores to determine a teacher's pay.
Test scores even help sell real estate. If a school's scores are good, agents will use them as a bragging point in marketing a nearby house, said David Hyatt, a spokesman for the Northern Virginia Real Estate Board. Hyatt knows from personal experience: He recently bought a house in McLean, and each of the real estate agents he contacted made a point of mentioning the local school's test scores.
Experts say that the testing fever stems in large part from a wave of concern in recent years about the quality of public education. As money has been poured into the schools to make improvements, taxpayers have wanted to see concrete results. Some cite the Reagan administration's push to improve test scores that began with release of state comparisons in 1983.
One result of the growing emphasis on testing is that more tests are being required. Forty states now mandate that students pass a basic skills test before graduating from high school, compared with "practically nothing" a decade ago, said Chris Pipho of the Education Commission of the States, which monitors trends in state education policies.
Beginning next year, Maryland will require that high school students pass citizenship and writing tests before they graduate. Virginia's State Board of Education voted Friday to require that students pass a new literacy test before they enter the ninth grade. The action, which is subject to approval by the state legislature, would go into effect in the 1988-89 school year.
As more attention is paid to test scores, school systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated in using and promoting them. Montgomery County devised a computer program to demonstrate that the longer a child spends in its school system, the higher his or score is likely to be. In Prince George's County, Superintendent John Murphy removed children's art from the walls of his office conference room and substituted charts showing the up or down trends in test scores at every school in the county. The area is nicknamed the "applied anxiety room."
School systems routinely hold full-dress news conferences to trumpet good scores. At McLean High School in Fairfax County this year, school officials were so proud of rising scores that they had cheery yellow buttons bearing a complimentary slogan made for all faculty members.
Fred Moreno, a spokesman for the College Board, which sponsors the Scholastic Aptitude Test, said that despite the board's ban on releasing scores early, "invariably when a state score goes up, the state superintendent of schools or a district superintendent will release the scores early and crow about it."
School officials acknowledge that there is so much public pressure for score information that they could not prevent release of poor test results, but they often try to put the best possible spin on them.
Schools also are trying harder to boost scores with special programs and test-taking workshops. Louisa County, Va., west of Richmond, began a campaign three years ago that includes letters to parents touting the tests, radio announcements urging students to go to bed early the night before a test, and pretest pep rallies with teachers dressed as cheerleaders. The school system even fed high school students a full breakfast the morning of the test this year.
Scores in the 3,500-student school system have risen, albeit slowly, since the campaign began, officials said.
In a few cases, students in some Virginia public schools have been given questions nearly identical to those on the tests to help them prepare, Bracey said. State officials were so concerned about possible cheating that they devised a computer program four years ago to flag unusual score patterns at individual schools, he said.
As an example of legal but questionable behavior, Bracey cited one Colorado school district that set aside $450 in prize money for students with the highest or most- improved test scores.
"I don't really think it's proper," he said, "but I think it's a very good index of how people are perceiving the importance of test scores, as opposed to real achievement."
Bracey is among a growing number of critics who say the increased emphasis on testing hurts more than it helps. They argue that a focus on testing often results in undesirable curriculum changes that emphasize the narrow range of rote skills measured by the tests, rather than qualities such as creativity or writing that multiple-choice tests cannot assess. (Some schools are moving to counter this by requiring a writing test as well.)
Also, critics say that tests take valuable time away from instruction; the Science Research Associates test required in Virginia, for example, takes five days a year to administer.
"I don't think test scores tell a whole lot about what's happening in the classroom," said Mimi Dash, president of the Fairfax Education Association. "There is a growing sense that there is too much time being spent testing."
But others argue that test scores offer necessary reassurance to a concerned public. Testing "is a reaction to the consumerism of American society from a very well-educated public that demands quantitative evidence of school success and achievement," said Brian Porter, a spokesman for the Prince George's school system. "Schools can no longer say they do a good job. They must prove it."