Across the country, from New York to Alaska, students returning to school this fall will face new and harder achievement tests that are being phased in state by state, grade by grade, subject by subject. The culture of standardized testing has filtered all the way down to kindergartners in Texas and Alabama, where youngsters are being closely monitored to make sure they'll be ready for academic hurdles that lie years ahead.
During the coming school year, about a third of the states will introduce new tests for public school students at a variety of grade levels, according to "Making Standards Matter," an annual survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers.
This year's burst of new tests in 16 states represents a gathering of momentum in what Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall Smith calls the "standards-based movement," which has seen nearly every state first adopt academic standards and then begin creating customized tests to determine whether students have met those standards.
But with experience, state and local school officials are learning that the standards movement is going to require more than just tests to get results.
"We're at the point where most of the states have got standards and are beginning to change their assessments and, hopefully, their curriculum and instruction," said Wayne Martin, a testing specialist at the Council of Chief State School Officers. "They keep discovering there are more and more pieces to add on."
Curriculum, teaching methods and even textbooks are being adjusted to fit the new state standards, with teachers receiving additional training to pull them all together. And for the students who don't pass the test, school systems are taking remedial measures such as longer school years, mandatory summer sessions and extra tutoring before, during or after regular classes.
"The biggest challenge is getting teachers to where they feel comfortable teaching to different standards than they have in the past," said Smith, who was an education professor before coming to Washington.
For example, North Carolina, which implemented much of its testing program in the past few years, found that further training of high school teachers in reading instruction would be needed because some students still have reading problems after passing through lower grades in less academically strict times, said Marvin Pittman, the state's assistant superintendent of education.
The adoption of statewide standards also has led to tighter structuring of curriculum and greater uniformity of what is taught in each grade. In Houston, for instance, the school district has taken the Texas standards and developed more specific curriculum guides for academic subjects at every grade level.
"This is the first time we've had a common understanding of what is to be taught in each grade and in each subject across the district," said Susan Sclafani, the district's chief of educational services.
One side effect of more defined curricula, however, has been that teachers have less flexibility to wax expansively on a favorite topic or let a spirited classroom discussion race away. In Florida, teachers in Tallahassee have cut back on time students have to work on science or history fair projects and this year anticipate taking classes on fewer field trips. "The subjects and activities of a general school experience . . . in many of our schools are being diminished or eliminated," said David Clark, spokesman for the Florida affiliate of the National Education Association.
Even class textbooks are being altered to keep pace with the standards revolution. "Textbook publishers are changing their textbooks in accord with state standards in influential states: . . . California, Texas, Virginia and Massachusetts," said Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, a research organization based in New York.
School districts in California, for example, are spending up to $250 million this year to buy new texts that will match new state standards in reading and mathematics. Those standards require that younger students be taught to read using phonics, rather than the "whole language" approach based on literature that had been in use for a decade. Similarly, the state's math standards have shifted away from solving problems related to everyday life and toward learning basic skills in the early grades and specific theorems in later ones.
But perhaps the greatest change brought about by the standards movement thus far has been a significant shift in the attitude educators hold about student failure. The gradual imposition of stricter academic standards--coupled with state threats of serious consequences for students who fall short on tests and for schools with large numbers of failing students--has made it more difficult for teachers and administrators to write off as inevitable the failure of students with serious educational deficiencies. Instead, many of the nation's school systems are priming themselves to prevent such students from failing the all-important tests--in many places years before they will have to take them. As of last year, 20 states required local districts to intervene to help struggling students and provided funding for such programs.
"The standards and accountability being put in place across the country is making it a lot clearer that preventing failure is easier than making up for it after it happens," said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Starting this year, Alabama's high school juniors will have to pass four new exams in reading, writing and grammar, math, and science before they can graduate. In preparation, teachers gave the new tests to last year's sophomores in a trial run to identify students in need of remedial help, which tutors are to provide this year after school.
This fall, Alabama schools are taking that preemptive approach to a new level, testing kindergartners--who won't be taking the graduation exams for a dozen years--to determine their readiness for school. First- and second-graders will take other tests designed to spot reading problems early.
Those and other initiatives, Harris explained, add up to "finding ways we can guarantee to keep all students in Alabama on track to graduation."
Similarly, in Texas, educators have begun to focus on prepping kindergartners for a third-grade state proficiency test that kicks in in 2003, which pupils will have to pass to be promoted to the next grade. This summer, nearly all kindergarten teachers in Texas participated in four-day workshops in which they studied the latest research on reading, sampled different teaching methods and worked on diagnosing reading problems early. "Next summer, we'll be concentrating on training first-grade teachers," said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
That sort of methodical preparation and implementation has meant that the standards movement, though proceeding at a heady pace, will take years to work all the way through the nation's schools.
One of the last groups of students who will have to take new state tests, according to an AFT survey last year, will be those in Maryland. When members of the state's class of 2007 reach high school, they will have to face new exams in American history, world history and English.
By that time, more than a decade will have passed since a commission created by Congress urged that proficiency tests be aligned with academic standards.
"It takes years really to get those standards implemented," said Susan Agruso, state testing director in South Carolina. "It's ongoing forever."