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Arkansas Shift from National Test Stirs Debate

Ohanian Comment: Note who's using the term education reform and note what they mean by it. Just as the devil can quote scripture, so, too, can every weasel quote reform--or write an editorial position masquerading as a news article.

Arkansas’ gradual move away from using a nationally standardized test to evaluate its 450,000 public school students to a state exam will become final with a state Board of Education vote today on proposed testing regulations.

Public education leaders say the shift from a national test — it’s been the Stanford Achievement Test for more than a decade — to the Arkansas Benchmark Exam is largely an effort to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and a state law, Act 1467 of 2003.

The Benchmark test measures a student’s mastery of what Arkansas teachers say students should know.

The de-emphasis on the national test is not a universally endorsed move. "I think it is absolutely a mistake," said Tommy Foltz of Little Rock, a spokesman for Arkansans for Education Reform, a new nonpartisan organization of business and civic leaders that includes Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "To our way of thinking, to do away with any [national] testing is to go in the wrong direction," Foltz said. "That’s 180 degrees from where we want to be."

Arkansans for Education Reform is calling for legislation that would require testing students every year using exams that compare Arkansas test-takers to a national sample of students who take the same test. The test is typically referred to as a national "norm-referenced test."

Using such a test every year, Foltz said, would allow the state and school districts to track individual students and make curriculum adjustments as needed. It also would give businesses and workers who move to the state readily understandable information about schools.

Many of Arkansas’ private schools use national tests yearly while the state has historically required them of public school students in three grades — currently five, seven and 10. The results were used to identify public school districts that were in academic trouble and needing state assistance or a state takeover.

Regulations going to the Education Board at its 9 a.m. meeting describe how Arkansas and its school districts will comply with the state’s Omnibus Quality Education Act of 2003. That act calls for national testing but leaves details to the state Education Board. The board’s proposed regulations call for testing only grades five and nine. But those same regulations call for Benchmark Exams to be given in grades three through eight and 11; in Algebra 1 and geometry; and in other subjects as funding becomes available. The Benchmark test — made up of multiple choice, short answer and essay questions — will be used to identify and sanction the state’s academically troubled schools.

FOLLOWING THE LAW Janinne Riggs, the Education Department’s assistant director for school improvement, acknowledged the push for yearly testing using a national test in a speech to several hundred superintendents and principals meeting in Little Rock last week. "Why not administer a normreference test as part of our accountability system?" she asked rhetorically. "The federal law is very clear. Your assessment system must be aligned to your [state’s academic] content standards."

Failure to comply with the federal law could mean a state loses millions of dollars in federal education funding.

Riggs said some states intend to rely on nationally standardized tests to meet the federal No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s education reform initiative, but those states will have to "augment" the tests with questions from their state academic standards. "We have talked to several states that have attempted to do this," she said, citing Louisiana and New Mexico. "It is extremely costly, and they are finding that it is difficult to do." Arkansas gets a national comparison on student achievement from another national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Riggs said. The test, created by federal law and carried out by the National Assessment Governing Board, is expected to expand to test a sample of students in every state as a check on each state’s academic standards and testing programs. But results are reported only on a statewide level — not by district or school.


Virtually all private schools in central Arkansas give the Stanford test. They give it more often than most public schools, based on an informal telephone poll of several schools last week. "We use our Stanford scores to assess our programs and our students’ progress," said Leesa Renshaw, dean of faculty at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock. "They seem to work pretty well for us, and our kids do very well on them."

Others that use the test include The Anthony School, Chenal Valley Montessori School, Lutheran High School, Arkansas Baptist School System and Little Rock Christian Academy — all in Little Rock — and Harding Academy, which is in Searcy.

The state’s Catholic school superintendent and the Cathedral School’s principal in Little Rock could not be reached for comment, but their schools also have used the Stanford test in recent years.

Private schools test almost every grade at least through eighth grade. Some rely on college entrance exams and the College Board’s Advanced Placement tests in high school.

Private school leaders had no plans to do away with nationally standardized tests. Boyd Chitwood, president of Little Rock Christian Academy, said his 1,100-student school gives the Stanford test in grades one through eight but is searching for more ways to gauge thinking and communication skills along with the lessons students learn about a Christ-centered world view.

The state Benchmark exam is not among the tests the school is considering. "They’ve not offered the Benchmark, and it hasn’t been a big issue for us," Chitwood said. "I think we prefer to go with the national standards. I think the state is doing some good things, but if we are going to compare, then folks are asking not only how are you doing in Arkansas but how are you doing in education generally."

Tom Wolbretch, principal of Lutheran High, advocated the use of the Stanford test when he helped establish the new school five years ago. He said he did so because of his familiarity with the test in Oregon and what he described as the test’s high quality and its broad national use.

But Wolbretch said he would like to see the Arkansas test, as well, to ensure that his students are meeting the local standards. "We want to be good Arkansas citizens," he said.

Kay Patton of The Anthony School, another private school in Little Rock, said she inquired about getting the state test. Her students in first through eighth grades routinely average between the 89 th and 91 st percentiles on the Stanford, putting them among the top scorers in the country, but she would like the option of giving the Benchmark, too. "They won’t let us take it," Patton said. "I have picked up the phone and called the state Education Department. They said ‘No, there wasn’t any money’ in their budget to pay for private schools. But I’m not asking to be in their budget. We would pay for it like we pay to take the Stanford [test]."

Gayle Potter, the Education Department’s associate director for academic standards and assessment, said private schools aren’t included in the state testing program. "The law specifies that we are to test public school children," she said.

But she added that the state’s academic standards and, more recently, actual questions from the 2003 Benchmark tests can be found under the "ACTAAP" link on the department’s Web site: http: // arkedu. state. ar. us

Public school districts are allowed to use national tests in grades other than those required by the state.

The Hot Springs School District, which has about 3,400 students, not only gives the Stanford test in first through 11 th grades, but it also gives another national norm-referenced test — one that is computerized and can be scored overnight — three times a year in first through eighth grades.

The 18,000-student Pulaski County Special School District, the second largest in the state, gives the Stanford in only the three-state mandated grades. Robert Clowers, the district’s director of accountability, said he would prefer that national testing continue at a minimum in those grades, one each in elementary, middle and high school. "I like to know where we compare to the nation," Clowers said. "We think we need to know how our kids are doing."

— Cynthia Howell
State’s shift away from nationally standardized student test stirs debate


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