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District tries new method of test prep

Ohanian Comment: Three cheers for students who speak out against test prep abuse. Where are the teachers?

By Susan Snyder

The Philadelphia School District is expected to announce today changes in the way students are prepared for standardized tests, capping a nearly two-year campaign led by a group of high schoolers upset at how getting ready for the exams interfered with their academic lives.

Under the new guidelines, students won't be pulled out of core-subject classes to prepare for tests, and preparation work will not be done in such classes, said Gregory Thornton, the district's chief academic officer.

Instead, students will practice outside the regular school day or during elective courses.

A group of about 15 students from Strawberry Mansion High School who are members of Youth United for Change had advocated the new approach.

They complained to the School Reform Commission in 2004, then surveyed classmates about test preparation and began to lobby school officials for change. That meant navigating school district bureaucracy, but they say the result was worth it.

"I could have danced when they said it," said Tiffany Thomas, 17, a Strawberry Mansion senior.

Around the country, some students have begun to balk at the pressure and time involved with testing. The need for schools to improve test scores has become even more acute under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

In Texas last year, some students protested by refusing to take the tests. One girl wrote an essay on the back of her answer sheet that criticized the testing, according to a report in the San Antonio Express-News.

"There is some amount of student activism on this, and occasionally it has some success," said Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Cambridge, Mass.

Thornton said he was not sure how many Philadelphia schools had pulled students out of core courses. Officials with Youth United for Change said that students in their chapters at Olney, Edison and Kensington High Schools and at Mastbaum Vocational Technical School had not reported being pulled out of classes, but that they had complained about intense pressure and "drill and kill" preparation exercises within their core courses.

Thornton said he wanted that kind of preparation work to stop.

"We really want to get away from test preparation as we know it, where you shut down a class for a period of time and work just on that. We think we've done a good job of integrating skills into the regular curriculum," he said.

The district is preparing for another round of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams, which will be given in math and reading this March.

Strawberry Mansion students said they disliked that only some of them were targeted for the preparation work while others remained in class. Those classes went on without them.

That went on every day for an hour and a half for about a month before the test, Thomas said.

"My grades started to suffer," she complained.

Shardae Wescott, 17, also a senior, said: "I felt pressured because I had to learn and remember everything they were teaching me, and then I had to go back to my classes and make up work and turn it in on time."

Thornton said some schools target those students for more test preparation who are at risk of not advancing to the next grade. Such improvement can protect a school from landing on an academic warning list.

More emphasis on testing has forced such efforts, he said.

"It happens around the country," he said. "This is one of the results when you get into a high-stakes accountability environment. Would this have happened 15 years ago? No, but the stakes are higher."

Under the changes to be announced today, however, schools will be advised at least to offer the test preparation to all students, Thornton said.

The district, Thornton said, also agreed to post the "dos and don'ts" of testing in all schools and allow the use of an existing district hotline to report cheating or problems with testing procedures.

Thornton said he welcomed the students' involvement.

"The kids have identified something we could do better," he said. "We value that input. I'm looking forward to the next challenge they bring to us."

or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

— Susan Snyder
Philadelphia Inquirer


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