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Ye Who Live By Test Scores Shall Die by Test Scores
In 2001, teachers and parents from Robert Shaw Theme School celebrated at a fancy hotel ballroom with Gov. Roy Barnes, who declared the school an example of education done right.
Then, just a year later, a dip in test scores landed Robert Shaw on the state's failing school list.
"It was horrible," recalled Jessica Lembach, a second-grade teacher. "That's why so many teachers are anti-standardized testing."
How could a school be an example for others one year and a failure the next? Nothing changed at Robert Shaw. Not the teachers or the students. Not the curriculum or the mission to weave academics, technology and the arts. Not the resolve to teach children to think rather than just regurgitate facts. Then, the very next year, Robert Shaw, a school with a large number of children from low-income families, saw its test scores rebound, with students posting pass rates as high as those at many affluent suburban schools.
Located in DeKalb County's Scottdale community, the public elementary school -- called a "theme school" for requiring uniforms and parental participation -- was praised as a "No Excuses" school in 2001. The influential Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which ranks schools based on test scores, applauded Robert Shaw for getting results despite serving many children from poor families.
Teachers say their school was declared a failure in 2002 for something out of their control. Fourth-graders the year before -- many of whom arrived in kindergarten not knowing the alphabet -- did not do as well on the state's curriculum test as fourth-graders in 2000, who were an exceptionally bright bunch.
Principal Millicent Frieson said the case illustrates how narrowly focused the state and the federal government have become in declaring whether a school is a success or a failure.
Robert Shaw's pass rates for fourth-graders dipped in 2001, which was enough to land it on the failure list, even though its pass rates remained higher than at many schools serving large numbers of students from poor families.
Robert Shaw wasn't the only school where parents and teachers were stunned to be on the list. About two dozen metro schools with scores near or above the state average got a failing grade.
In the past, the state labeled a school as failing when 70 percent or more students failed math or reading on the state's curriculum test, the CRCT.
In early 2002, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which puts a heavy emphasis on using test scores to hold schools accountable. Under the law, it isn't enough for a school to have good test scores. Schools must improve every year, not just in overall scores but in all subgroups, such as African-Americans and students who speak English as a second language.
In light of the federal law, Georgia used a new measure when compiling its list of failing schools. Schools were "failing" if they did not show enough progress over the year before. This pitted Robert Shaw's fourth-graders of 2001 against fourth-graders from the year before.
The school's scores went back up in 2002, and Robert Shaw is again a model for success, proof that a school in which two-thirds of students take part in the free and reduced-price lunch program can do as well as schools in wealthier areas.
Bush law now in effect
The Washington-based Center on Education Policy released a report in October pointing out the limits of what standardized tests tell the public about how well a school is teaching its students.
"Annual changes in average test scores . . . can be an undependable gauge of the teaching and learning in that school. An annual rise in average test scores doesn't necessarily mean a school is succeeding, just as a drop in scores doesn't always mean it's failing."
Jack Jennings, director at the Center on Education Policy, said the emphasis on bottom-line test scores has grown over the past 15 years as public confidence in public schools has plummeted.
"Test scores are in no way scientifically precise indicators," Jennings said. "We can't just tell teachers, 'Pump up those test scores,' which is what our politicians are doing."
Other studies have pointed out the complexities of standardized tests and the way states interpret the scores. An analysis released last spring found that pass rates often improve every year on state-developed tests like Georgia's CRCT and High School Graduation Test. But the same students don't consistently improve on other measures such as the SAT, Advanced Placement tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The study was conducted at Arizona State University and funded by teachers unions, which typically oppose high-stakes tests.
In Georgia, much is unknown as a new governor and new state school superintendent will be sworn in this month. Gov.-elect Sonny Perdue and Kathy Cox, a former Fayette County teacher who will head the state Department of Education, both acknowledge the shortcomings of using standardized tests as a sole factor in deciding whether a school is succeeding or failing.
Yet Perdue and Cox can't make changes that conflict with No Child Left Behind, which threatens to cut off federal funding to states that don't comply with mandates that include testing in every grade, every year.
And the public isn't likely to ease up on its demand for accountability through test scores. Holly Robinson of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which gave Robert Shaw its "No Excuses" award, says publishing the scores spurs schools into action, especially those that have languished at the bottom for years and blamed their low scores on their children's impoverished home lives.
"You can't have public accountability without testing," Robinson says, noting that Robert Shaw is still a success story, given its rebound.
At Robert Shaw, teachers and leaders say they never veered from the original vision of their founding principal, Bill Diggs, even when their fourth-grade scores fell. They view their cameo on the failing schools list as proof that kids aren't parts in a factory that can be assembled the same way year after year.
"Teaching is not something you do step by step," Lembach, the second-grade teacher, says. "Something that works today may not work tomorrow."
Despite the pressure to excel on state tests, students at Robert Shaw spend time in art, music and science lab, activities that are disappearing in many schools that feel pressured to drill in the basics.
Students recite poetry and learn it's important to say "please" and "thank you."
"It's active learning," Diggs said. "When kids are active and enthusiastic about learning, everything works."
Lembach has taught her students since kindergarten, a practice called looping, in which the teacher moves up to the next grade with the students. Her students know her favorite color is purple and they can rattle off the names of her four cats, her two dogs and her boyfriend.
If Lembach's students have been good -- and most days they have -- their teacher makes time for an activity that has vanished from many elementary schools: recess (although Lembach calls it "extended PE").
For 20 minutes, 21 children bundled up in coats race around with hula hoops and basketballs.
For 20 minutes, standardized test scores don't matter one bit.
Put to the Test
Jan. 5, 2003
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