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Testing Dissidents

School leaders go public with their concerns over the harm of high-stakes tests by Paul Riede

When it came down to it, Catherine Kitto decided she couldn't accept the "bribe money."

 

So the principal of Gulf Gate Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., drove six hours to Tallahassee, the state capital, where she and four of her teachers personally handed their $500 school performance bonuses back to Gov. Jeb Bush at an open Cabinet meeting.

The protest two years ago gave the women a temporary sense of empowerment, but it did nothing to slow down Florida's high-stakes testing system. Last year, Kitto and the rest of her staff simply accepted the $86,000 the state gave their school for its "A" ranking on the state exams, divvying up the money among the staff.

"I am doing things that are totally against my principles," says Kitto, an educator for 38 years, including 13 as a principal. "I feel really badly about it, and that's why I'm willing to speak out about it. It's not good for kids. It's not good for education. I think in the long run we will find out that we're not doing a good job giving to kids what they need in the workplace and in life."

Fighting Back

As a new generation of high-stakes tests begins to yield consequences for schools and students, Kitto is hardly the only conflicted school leader in the United States. Administrators across the country who disagree with their state's testing policies are looking for ways to fight back without putting their students in academic limbo or running afoul of the law themselves.

Parents, students and a few educators have led high-profile protests and boycotts against the tests in California, Massachusetts, New York and elsewhere. Others are working with state administrator associations or legislators to try to modify the testing systems or are even filing lawsuits to overturn them.

In upstate New York, Fairport Superintendent William Cala is trying to establish an independent board that would grant an entirely new diploma-unrecognized by the state Education Department-under which students would not have to take the state's required Regents exams. A coalition of alternative public schools concentrated in the New York City area is suing the state, arguing that the mandate to administer the exams is arbitrary and has no educational value.

Then there are smaller, more symbolic demonstrations, such as Kitto's payback to Gov. Bush or the message Georgia educator Stephen Schyck sends every time he goes to work. Schyck, principal of Creekside High School just south of Atlanta, wears a button every day reading, "Choose the best answer." The choices given are "test" and "teach," and the box next to "teach" is checked.

Most administrators who oppose the exams walk a fine line between dissent and open defiance-trying to minimize what they see as the negative impacts of high-stakes testing without putting their districts or their students at risk. (Several superintendents interviewed for this story were leery of being labeled "civil disobedients.") In a growing number of cases, they are being pushed by grassroots groups of parents.

"We're opposed to the state grading our schools, traumatizing our kids, narrowing the curriculum and doing all sorts of other nasty things," says Gloria Pipkin, coordinator of the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform, which is running a "Spay the FCAT" campaign against the state tests. "My position is that superintendents should be courageous and speak out when they see anything harmful being done to their system by the state, but very few of them do that."

Part of the reason is that public opinion polls still show strong support for the testing systems, says Robert Schwartz, president of Achieve, a nonprofit organization based in Cambridge, Mass., formed by governors and business leaders to help lead the national standards movement. The purpose of the tests, he says, is to ensure that all schools maintain high expectations for all of their students.

"The standards movement is essentially an equity movement," he says.

Harmful Measures

But many school leaders draw a sharp distinction between high standards and the kinds of tests they are being forced to give to their students. A few, like Michael McGill, superintendent in affluent Scarsdale, N.Y., are carefully testing the limits of state authority on the issue.

McGill, a vocal opponent of high-stakes testing, took no action against students who skipped mandatory state exams last spring, even though more than half the district's 8th-graders joined the boycott. The district took a legalistic approach, treating the boycott the way it usually deals with illegal absences. Under district policy, the only punishment in such cases is to bar students from making up work they missed.

"What we were advised school districts are supposed to do in this situation is to comply with the law and their own regulations as fully as they can, and that's what we tried to do," McGill says.

New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills dispatched a regional superintendent to Scarsdale to investigate. He concluded that district officials in effect had encouraged the boycott by speaking out vehemently against the tests and assuring parents that their children would not be penalized. In late October, Mills directed the district to make it clear that future absences resulting from boycotts would be penalized and to provide parents and students with "factual information" about the tests and their purpose.

The commissioner also demanded details on how the district would encourage "100 percent participation." He gave Scarsdale until Nov. 30 to reply.

Some states wave a heavier hammer over districts than others. In California, Florida and Texas, performance on mandated exams can have a significant financial impact on schools.

Bill Levinson, superintendent of the Tamalpais Union High School District in wealthy Marin County, Calif., is finding that out. The district north of San Francisco received $740,000 in bonus money from the state for its performance on state exams two years ago. Last year, a student boycott of the tests-spurred by an activist board member-drove the percentage of students being assessed below the state limit. That put the high-performing district in danger of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonus money.

Levinson says he does not favor the state's testing system, but acknowledges it is difficult to turn away state money, particularly in California, where school funding has been down for years. He also is loath to alienate district residents, particularly older taxpayers who have faithfully supported the schools in the past and who may be dismayed to see asterisks next to Tamalpais schools when the local newspapers publish district-by-district test scores.

Too bad, says Richard Raznikov, the renegade board member who encouraged students to hand out fliers at the high schools urging them to boycott the exams. Well over 20 percent of students followed his advice at two of the district's three high schools.

"I don't think these kids are for sale," says Raznikov, a 55-year-old lawyer. "You say to somebody, 'Well, you can have Education A or you can have Education B, and Education A is more helpful to you in terms of real education, of inspiring learning and giving you the tools you're going to need in life, but Education B can bring your school more money.' How much is it worth to get an inferior education and make some money?"

In Wisconsin, like California, students can legally choose to opt out of state exams. But school leaders in Wisconsin were given even wider authority to minimize the impact of the tests after parent groups pressured legislators to roll back their plans for a strictly enforced, statewide exit exam. Instead, the lawmakers insisted only that the exams be among the criteria districts use to evaluate whether a student can graduate.

In Whitefish Bay, Wis., where many of the parent protests originated, Superintendent James Rickabaugh and his board placed the state tests on the bottom of its list of criteria. The tests will come into play only if a student has not passed the required courses, posted a minimum grade-point average or elicited favorable teacher recommendations.

Demographic Distinctions

Whitefish Bay, like Tamalpais, Scarsdale and many of the other schools and districts marked by protests, is relatively wealthy and high performing. Indeed, it is the districts that excel on such exams that have produced the loudest protests against them.

There are several reasons for that. Many educators say protests from low-performing districts would be summarily dismissed as attempts by bad schools to avoid accountability. In addition, some urban educators say they welcome the focusing effect of the exams, which clearly direct teachers and staff to concentrate on the basic skills many urban children have failed to master.

"It's helping us do a better job of buying textbooks and resource materials where previously it was just almost purchasing things because you liked it or it felt right," says Walter Burt, superintendent in Pontiac, Mich. "It also enables us to do a better job of enriching the skills of our teachers when we see that there are areas where our students are not doing well."

Where Burt parts company with the pro-test politicians is in the way the scores are reported by the state and published in newspapers. The constant, unsurprising news that poor, urban students score worse than their wealthier suburban counterparts is a continual drain on staff and student morale and parent confidence, he says.

"We have many parents who say, 'Well, God, I've got to get my kids out of this school district. I've got to move across the street,'" Burt says.

Some urban educators have campaigned actively against the tests. Ann Cook, principal of the Urban Academy high school in Manhattan, is co-leader of a 28-school coalition of alternative schools across New York that sued the state over its must-pass Regents exams in August.

The schools, created as options for children who were not thriving in traditional settings, had been excused from Regents exams until a ruling earlier this year removed the exemption. In its suit, the New York Performance Standards Coalition accused the state of being arbitrary in that ruling.

Cook says the mandate would drastically alter the curricula at the schools-many of which have impressive graduation and college placement rates-and turn them into the same test-preparation institutions their students fled in the first place.

"It's bureaucratic mandates gone mad," she says.

The state argues that if the schools are so effective, students should have no problem passing the Regents exams.

Meier's Lament

In Boston, nationally known educator Deborah Meier has made no secret of her disdain for the testing required by her state. Eighty-five percent of the parents at her K-8 Mission Hill School apparently agreed with her, withholding their children from the state exams administered last spring.

Meier says she did not actively encourage the boycott, but felt it was her responsibility to let parents and her school board know how she felt about the tests.

"Parents assume that if we're not speaking up we think it's OK," she says. "When you go to a doctor, you don't expect him to suggest you do something that he knows is not good for your health because someone told him to. It's important to make very public that parents can trust us, that we can tell them what we think is good education and not good education and they can make their own decisions."

Leaders of high-performing suburban districts have similar reasons for opposing the tests, which they say stifle innovation by taking time and energy away from teachers and forcing schools into a teach-to-the-test mindset.

"Once you put the high-stakes veil on them, now the content of the test becomes much more important," says Rickabaugh of Whitefish Bay. "Every piece included in the tests is taught, as opposed to providing a richer array of curricular and instructional experiences for students."

James Fleming, superintendent of Capistrano Unified, a 46,000-student district in Orange County, Calif., midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, says his state's "testing frenzy" has begun to limit the curriculum in his district. Plans to offer Chinese and Japanese language study to elementary school students are on hold, he says, and music and art programs remain limited.

"We're moving more toward a reading, language, mathematics, science kind of thing," he says. "That's it."

Fleming, who has spoken out against the testing system in forums across the state, says he sees a need for standards and accountability. But he says California's current mix of exams doesn't measure what children need to know.

"It's almost like it doesn't matter whether it's valid, whether it matches the curriculum you're teaching, whether it provides you good data, good information to make decisions about educational programs," Fleming says. "You've got to have something. You've got to have a number."

Beyond His Control

Supporters of high-stakes testing systems acknowledge that the systems are still evolving, and some states do a better job than others. But they say the public continues to demand accountability and that tests can provide that.

"I find it hard to believe that Scarsdale kids are going to suffer unduly by having to take the same Regents tests as Bronx kids have to take," says Schwartz of Achieve. "The notion that there is some significant disadvantage that Scarsdale is going to experience, I really don't get it, I guess."

McGill, Scarsdale's superintendent, agrees that most of the children in his district have little trouble passing the state tests, and he has advised his principals and teachers not to teach to the tests in any way. But he says the fact that test scores are touted by the state Education Department, published prominently in newspapers and compared from district to district has pernicious effects in classrooms that are beyond the control of district leaders.

In effect, he says, many teachers will teach to the test no matter what school leaders say.

"Lots of us say, 'Well, we're not doing lots of test preparation.' But when you go into schools, what you see in fact is almost regardless of what people are saying or what ideally they want, there really is incredible pressure to teach only what's on the test and to give only the kinds of questions that are on the test."

Kitto, the principal in Sarasota, has the same frustration.

"Schools are big places and closed doors are awfully easy," she says. "So the bottom line is they spend a lot of time in test prep. My teachers want their school to look good. There's a lot of pride in the school and they don't want us to be a B or a C school."

Under Florida's system, Kitto's school slipped from an A to a B last year because the percentage of 4th-graders passing the state's reading and writing tests dropped a few points. The rating has no validity, Kitto argues, because a different cohort of students is tested every year. Nonetheless, teachers will feel pressure to raise scores this year.

"Are we going to do those fun science projects? Are we going to take a lot of enriching field trips?" Kitto asks. "We were starting to do some really unusual things in school that took kids outside the classroom and brought subjects together in a way that kids could really understand. Unfortunately that isn't what is going to get them the top scores on the tests."

A Rights Issue

Cala, the superintendent in the Rochester, N.Y., suburb of Fairport, has similar concerns. He says the state's high school Regents exams, now required for graduation, not only limit classrooms explorations, but they openly discriminate against certain students. Some students are simply poor test-takers, he says. Others could succeed in vocational careers even if they didn't pass the Regents exams. Still others are recent immigrants who are bright enough to graduate but not yet adept enough in English to pass the state's English Regents exam.

In addition, Cala says, students in wealthy districts are able to afford the extra preparation they might need to pass the exams, while students in poorer districts are not.

"I absolutely see this as a civil rights issue," he says. "I see it as an issue of extreme discrimination."

Cala is going further than most school leaders in his opposition to the testing system. (See related story) Besides participating in a public rally against the system in Albany last spring, he is working with two other superintendents to establish an independent high school diploma. The diploma would be granted not by any school district but by a nonprofit organization made up of representatives of K-12 education, higher education and business. Students would have to demonstrate proficiency through portfolio work and other criteria, but not necessarily by passing Regents exams.

"It's sort of a passive civil disobedience because I am providing a set of options that the state refuses to provide," he says. "I think pure civil disobedience would be not offering the tests, and I'm not going there."

Cala says he can go as far as he is going only because he has strong support from the school board and from an organized group of parents.

"I'm constantly asked why other superintendents don't speak out, and it's very clear why other superintendents don't speak out," he says. "The life expectancy of a superintendent is very short, and without the support of your school board you're entering dangerous waters."

Support from organized parents is in some ways even more important, says Kitto.

"I've pretty much accepted that no matter how loudly I shout, my voice probably isn't the right one," she says. "That's why I've really taken to working hard at educating my parents."

Frank Discussions

Grassroots protests by parents will be the deciding factor in turning around the high-stakes testing movement, predicts Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest. He says the anti-testing tide will peak if President Bush's plans for mandatory, nationwide testing begin to take effect.

"I think that will make it harder for schools to pay attention to anything other than test scores," Neill says. "I think that will fuel a much larger backlash than we're now seeing."

For Meier, that makes it all the more important for administrators to be frank with their governing boards and parents about how they view the exams-even as they continue to administer the exams to students.

"What administrators too often do is to think our job is to administrate things rather than to be spokespeople for what's good for education in our school," she says. "I think we have undersold the importance of our being actors in the debate. … But we have an obligation to let people know where we stand."

Paul Riede is an education writer with the Syracuse, N.Y., Post-Standard. E-mail: priede@syracuse.com