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Whose Schools Are They: Providence's? Or the Bush Administration's?

PROVIDENCE -- Teachers are distraught over a federal law that is forcing Rhode Island public elementary schools to test students five to seven weeks earlier than they have in previous years.

Because it was challenging the regulation, the Rhode Island Department of Education didn't notify schools of the new testing schedule until right before Christmas, which left teachers scrambling to revise their curriculums.

When teachers at Charles Fortes School in Providence were told of the change, they responded with a collective, "Oh, no. They can't do this to us!"

"It's frustrating," said Fortes principal Tori Hughes. "We want to be successful. And yet you get the feeling that they are setting us up to fail."

Rhode Island elementary schools have always administered the statewide assessments in math, English and writing from late April through early May. The tests are given to students in grades 3 and 4.

But this year, the federal No Child Left Behind law is requiring schools to report test results during the same school year to allow nonimproving schools to offer school choice or after-school tutoring in the fall.

Because it takes time for the publishers to correct the tests, Rhode Island was forced to give the assessments in March and early April. Middle and high school schedules remain the same.

The Rhode Island Department of Education has put pressure on Harcourt Brace, the publishers of the New Standards Reference Exams, to get the results back to the districts more quickly -- this year, by early July.

But at least one elementary school principal from Aquidneck Island -- who did want to be named -- said the Rhode Island Education Department should have notified schools sooner.

"I think someone dropped the ball on this big time," he said, "and the schools will wind up with egg on their faces. This should have been picked up on way back in the summer."

Mary Ann Snider, the state Education Department's director of assessment, said state officials are as frustrated as local educators.

"Everyone is feeling the tension," she said. "I certainly appreciate the challenge this is for them."

Snider said Rhode Island Education Commissioner Peter McWalters tried to persuade the federal government that moving up the testing schedule would be unfair to students and to schools. McWalters didn't prevail, however.

"It got to a point before Christmas where we needed to make a decision," Snider said. "It was clear that we weren't going to be able to change our testing schedule."

Meanwhile, teachers are under enormous pressure to improve student scores because so much is riding on the state assessments. Both state and federal law now require that the tests be used to rank schools. Schools with predominately poor students must offer a series of options, from school choice to additional tutoring, if they fail to improve for two to three years.

With the new schedule, third- and fourth-grade teachers must jam six weeks of instruction into a much smaller time frame.

"It's an impossible situation," said Jenny Loats, who teaches grades 3 and 4 at Fortes. "You just have to prioritize."

Other teachers complained that the math assessments do not measure what is taught in the classroom.

Providence, as a district, recently moved from the traditional skill-and-drill math curriculum to one that focuses more on real-life applications. But teachers say the state tests require children to have mastered specific skills, such as long division, which haven't been taught in the classroom.

"I'm going to have to teach two math curriculums simultaneously," Loats said. "I have to ask myself, 'This month, do I focus on the math test or the math curriculum?' "

Teachers at Fortes also said that they are constantly in conflict between state and federal expectations, as symbolized by the state assessments, and the needs of the children in their classrooms who do not start school with the same skills.

"That tension is constant," Loats said. "You are expected to be judged by X, Y and Z standards. We're always being asked to do one more thing. (No Child Left Behind) just magnifies the tension."

The new federal law, which took effect last January, has also changed the rules on children enrolled in bilingual education. Under the state law, students with less than one year in the United States did not have to take the state assessments because it was assumed that their English was too limited.

Now, under federal law, all children have to take the tests either in English or in their native language. This provision will pose a big challenge to urban school districts such as Providence, where 80 languages are spoken.

"New Jersey is struggling with the same concerns," Snider said. "We hope we'll be able to reach a compromise [with the federal government]. We don't want to traumatize these children."

Bilingual education teachers are already struggling to teach students whose English language abilities vary widely -- from those who speak English with little difficulty to those who barely speak it all.

Yvonne Vasquez, who teaches bilingual education at Fortes, said only half of her fourth-graders can read and write at grade level and a quarter have no English skills at all.

"It's horribly frustrating," she said. "It's all we talk about . . . the test, the test. I'm teaching them division and my kids can't multiply."

Vasquez is so concerned about making up for lost time that she is offering an after-school program to prep students for the tests.

Teachers and principals are also worried that test scores will drop because of the early testing dates, wiping out any gains that their schools have made, and, in some cases, dropping them into the low-performing category.

Because Rhode Island measures progress by looking at three-year averages rather than year-to-year scores, schools should not have to worry about dropping in the state rankings, according to Assistant Commissioner David Abbott.

— Linda Borg
Teachers upset at new test schedule
Providence Journal
Jan. 15, 2003


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