Published Online:

'Excellence' Tactics Single Out Weakest, but Offer Little Aid

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Philadelphia--The William F. Dick elementary school lies in the heart of one of this city's poorest neighborhoods. Almost 99 percent of the school's 574 students are black. Most live in the subsidized-housing projects that surround the school, are on welfare, and come from sin-gle-parent homes.

Last fall, the vast majority of the school's 3rd- and 5th-grade students failed to pass the cutoff scores on Pennsylvania's new statewide test, called tells or Testing for Essential Learning and Literacy Skills, and thus qualified for state assistance.

To help such students, the state provided about $38 per child--or $76 if the child failed both the reading and mathematics portions of the test. Because the city reserved some of those funds for a summer-school program, the William F. Dick school received only $20 per child to6provide remediation during the latter half of the school year, even if the child failed in both subjects.

For the Dick school's officials, as for others across the nation, test scores symbolize the new pressure to attain "excellence" in education.

Since the push for excellence began, nearly 40 states and many cities have created new tests or made existing tests harder in order to raise standards.

In some instances, the tests help determine whether students will graduate from high school, move on to the next grade, or receive remedial education to rectify academic problems. In others, the tests merely identify those who pass and those who fail, and provide a rough measure of comparison among schools, districts, and states.

The increased emphasis on statewide testing is dividing pupils into winners and losers, but few states have determined what to do for those who "lose." Critics of the proliferating tests are concerned that a large number of students whom the tests identify as needing help will not receive remediation. Some even question whether the kinds of remediation likely to be available will be worthwhile.

Numbers High

In Pennsylvania, for example, 32 percent of the approximately 350,000 public-school students in grades 3, 5, and 8 who took a new statewide test this fall failed to pass the cutoff scores.

In Connecticut, an estimated 20 percent of the students are expected to "fail" new mastery tests that will be put in place in the years ahead, according to Pat D. Forgione, chief of the office of research and evaluation for the state department of education.

And in Indiana, although the average student's score on a new criterion-referenced test this year was very high, the state has decided that the lowest 15 percent of the 3rd graders will qualify for remediation.

Most states require districts to provide remediation for students who score poorly on the exams, according to Allen Odden, a professor of education at the University of Southern California. But usually, he said, "It's a dodge from the state having to support those programs."

"If you look for the programs locally, you are not going to find them," he added. "The money is not there."

Joan McCarty First, executive director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, said that as she traveled around the country this year, she was "stunned by the extent of the national preoccupation with testing issues." But, she added, "very often there is no money there for remediation or there is inadequate money."

Shifting Responsibility

Just 15 years ago, most educators would have assumed that remediation was a federal responsibility, according to Harold L. Hodgkinson, former director of the National Institute of Education and a senior fellow with the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. That notion was primarily due to the creation in 1965 of the federal remedial-education program (formerly Ti-tle I, now Chapter 1), which remains the largest federal spending program in precollegiate education.

But in the past few years, as states have begun to mandate higher standards and to draw attention to students who fail to meet them, they have been forced to re-evaluate their own role in providing remedial services, Mr. Hodgkinson said. And he suggested that "we are seeing a fairly major change in functions."

In some localities--the state of California and Philadelphia, for example--new tests are being tied to changes in the curriculum that educators say will benefit all students by clarifying what should be learned. In other places, states are providing additional funds and assistance to districts with the lowest test scores to improve their overall educational quality.

But even with these changes, there will still be individual students who perform poorly on the exams. And according to the North Carolina Parent and Citizen Test Review Commission, "If the purposes of standardized tests ... are to measure mastery of skills, to compare students with others of their grade level, and to ensure minimal skills, the educational system has some responsibility to remediate the skills of those students who fail or perform poorly on these tests."

Without such assistance, educators warn, the tests threaten to become punitive, penalizing students for their weaknesses without helping them to overcome them.

"I don't think we can write off the notion that the emphasis on achievement and on excellence is going to result in some students and some teachers working harder," said Ms. First, "and that's not bad. The question is whether that alone, without any support, is going to be enough to help children who were having some problems before the standards were raised."

She added: "I don't have a great deal of faith in the average school district doing a bang-up job of remediating kids."

Great Variation

At present, the level of state support available to help students who score poorly on the tests varies widely.

Arkansas, for example, has statewide tests in grades 3, 6, and 8. A new law requires school districts to provide "academic-skills-development plans" for students who score poorly on the tests. As of the 1987-88 school year, students must pass the 8th-grade test to be promoted to the 9th grade.

But no state funds have been provided for remediation, said Connie S. Dardin, coordinator of student assessment for the state.

"We're going to be spending a lot of time this summer and the beginning of the next year focusing on how to deal with the students who don't pass," said Ms. Dardin. "I think we're kind of implementing things in stages."

South Carolina officials, on the other hand, have decided that remediation is a state responsibility. In conjunction with its testing program, the state will spend approximately $60 million for remedial education next year--including approximately $400 per student for those with the greatest academic needs and slightly more than $100 per student for those with less severe problems.

Donald Thomas, deputy superintendent of the division of public ac-countability in the state department of education, said that expecting school districts to pay for such remediation on their own is "not realistic," because "local school districts generally are not going to voluntarily increase taxation to provide compensatory services to children in the bottom quarter."

'Paltry' Expenditure

Many other states fall between those two extremes.

Pennsylvania, for example, provided $24 million to districts this school year in conjunction with its new testing program. However, districts were required to spend only $7 million of that money for remedial services, according to Ann Witmer, press secretary for the state's department of education. The rest of the funds could be spent on general educational improvements.

As a result, the amount of money actually available for remediation was limited.

"It's a ridiculous amount of money," said James H. Lytle, director of planning, research, and evaluation for the Philadelphia Public Schools, which received $1.35 million to remediate more than 20,000 students (and $1.7 million as a general school subsidy). "For a paltry amount of dough, we are being asked to do the impossible, or the near-impossible. The state would be much more supportive if it worked with us to look at the regulatory climate and figure out ways to make better use of the resources we've got than it would trying to drive remedial programs with $1.95 an aide."

Federal Chapter 1 funding for students, by contrast, can cost about $500 a year per child. While that may sound generous, states that do not make similar investments in remediation are going to lose money in the long run, according to Barriers to Excellence: Our Children at Risk, a report by a national board of inquiry on education chaired by Harold Howe 2nd, a former U.S. Commissioner of Education during the Johnson Administration, and Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund.

"It costs only $500 to provide a year of compensatory education to a student before he or she gets into academic trouble," the report notes. "It costs over $3,000 when one such student repeats one grade once."

'Arbitrary and Capricious'

In addition to their differences in funding for remediation, the states vary so widely in terms of the ages at which children are tested and provided with remediation that "eventually, the years in which the testing and remediation are done can be seen as arbitrary and capricious," said Mr. Hodgkinson.

The Georgia legislature, for example, has confined state funding for remediation to grades 2 through 5 and 9 through 12, even though it also tests children in the intervening grades.

Indiana will eventually test students in three grades and will fund remediation during those years.

Kentucky has a statewide test in all grades, but only funds remediation in grades 1 and 2 in an attempt to help students early in their educational careers. Florida spends most of its state remediation funds in the middle-school and high-school years.

And Maryland provides no state funding for remediation, on the grounds that, in the words of Richard M. Petre, assistant deputy state superintendent of schools, "we should concentrate on reducing the number of students who do not pass, and not reward with lots of money school systems who have large numbers of failures."

Federal Role Unclear

State officials justify these attempts at targeting by saying that they have only so much money to go around. In addition, some states anticipate that federal remediation dollars will make up for gaps in state funding and that the infusion of state funds will eventually help determine where the federal dollars are spent.

But experts agree that the relationship between state and federal remediation programs is anything but clear. "It's a new issue," said John F. Jennings, the majority counsel for education on the House Committee on Education and Labor. "It's one of those things that will have to be puzzled through."

It is unclear, for example, whether states can use federal funds for remediation tied to state testing programs, or whether they have to pay for it with state and local money. The Administration, Mr. Jennings said, has given states little guidance on such issues.

Robert Pressman, senior staff attorney for the Center for Law and Education in Cambridge, Mass., said that where some form of prior discrimination had occurred, states would have an obligation to provide remediation to students failing state tests. "It's also possible," he said, "that if remediation would tend to help all or almost all the students pass, and not doing that creates a racial or ethnic disproportion in terms of who doesn't pass, then states might be required to provide remediation."

Not Preventive

One thing is clear--tying remediation to test results definitely "increases the power of the tests," said Mr. Hodgkinson.

"Most of the remediation efforts that I've looked at," he added, "are immediately following the tests, but you could make a very good argument that in the year before the test you could easily spot those students who are likely to fail without some assistance. If you could get them to pass the test the first time, you'd be a heck of a lot better off than saying, 'Okay kid, you've failed, but maybe if you're lucky we can jack you up so you can make it the second time.' Very few of the states have seen remediation this way--as a prelude to the testing process."

"Any time you label a child a failure, you're putting a burden on the child," said Ms. First. "My basic argument is: if we know how to remediate these kids, why aren't we intervening before we test them and fail them?"

Little Agreement

There is, in fact, little agreement about what constitutes good remediation, and little consistency in the kinds of remediation that states are funding.

Some educators argue that good remediation is basically the same as good instruction of any type--good teaching, good curriculum, and good staff development. Others emphasize the diagnosis of each child's problems on an individual basis, instruction geared to those problems or weaknesses, and constant reassessments of the child's progress.

Kim Marshall, director of curriculum for the Boston Public Schools, recently completed a paper on remediation for administrators in that school system. He concluded: "There is no one instructional solution to the remediation problem waiting to be found and implemented. ... Unfortunately, the jury is out on that one. Probably, the most important thing is staff ownership and a school just buying into something and making it work."

Mr. Marshall and his staff compiled a list of the characteristics of effective remediation programs to include in their paper. "The striking thing about this list," said Mr. Marshall, "was that we put it together and then said, 'Wait a minute. This is what every effective classroom and teacher ought to be doing " all the time.

The problem, he added, is that for students identified as needing remediation, "It probably wasn't done the first time. If you were able to go back and do a case history of those kids, you would probably find that they were falling slowly further and further behind."

Mr. Marshall favors helping students with academic problems within their regular classes. Mr. Thomas, of South Carolina, argues that "the best remedial program is not during classtime, but is supplemental tutoring to the child outside of class hours."

Both agree that there is far too much emphasis on pull-out programs that remove small groups of students from regular classes during the school day. Some educators suggest that such programs can be counterproductive because they stigmatize students and cause them to miss regular class instruction in exchange for remediation, so that they are perennially behind.

'No Single Program'

"I can't imagine that there's a single Fanny Farmer remediation program that's going to work everywhere in the country," said Mr. Hodgkinson, "any more than there's a single college B.A. program that's appropriate."

Approaches Vary

As a result, states have taken a number of different approaches to remediation that are difficult to compare or evaluate.

Georgia's guidelines for state-funded remediation programs, for example, basically mirror those for the federal Chapter 1 program, said Lucille B. Jordan, associate state superintendent in the department of education. As in Chapter 1, remediation ranges from individual tutoring, to "pull-out" programs, to resource centers, to the additional assistance of classroom aides.

In Pennsylvania, remedial education with state funds varies just as widely, with some school districts offering pull-out programs, others offering after-school tutoring for a few hours several days a week, and still others hiring reading and mathematics aides to work with children within the regular classroom.

Kentucky plans to offer three levels of remediation for children in grades 1 and 2, said Diane M. Teasley, director for the unit of essential-skills remediation in the state department of education.

Children scoring only slightly below the mastery level on the statewide tests will be served by their regular classroom teachers, who will be provided with additional strategies for working with them. Children scoring moderately below the mastery levels will be helped by aides within the classroom. And children scoring substantially below mastery will be eligible for self-contained "transition" classes limited to 15 or fewer students.

Summer School

A popular form of remediation under the new state testing programs is summer school.

Philadelphia, for example, plans to offer a four-week summer school to students who scored poorly on Pennsylvania's new test, and will fund the program with state and Chapter 1 funds on a 50-50 basis.

Indiana and North Carolina plan to set up summer schools to provide most of their state-financed remediation. Louisiana parishes also conduct the majority of their state-financed remediation in this way, according to William A. Davis, director of the bureau of elementary education for the Louisiana Department of Education.

Officials in these states argue that summer is an uncomplicated time to provide remediation because nothing else is competing for students' attention. In addition, the supply of remedial teachers is less of a problem, since teachers are looking for summer jobs.

Moreover, research has found that without continued schooling, slower and younger children's academic performance regresses during the summer, according to Richard Culyer, a professor of education at Coker College in Hartsville, S.C, in an article on Chapter 1 programs. A study of 119 6th graders who were classified by reading ability found, for example, that during the summer poor readers dropped a full year in achievement, according to standardized test results.

But the biggest attraction of summer school may be its cost, according to Mr. Hodgkinson. "It's cheap and it suggests to the public that you've done something. But anybody who thinks that you can fundamentally convert a kid's self-image or his ability to think of himself as a student--one who can master math or language--in one summer is wrong. I think that's just really premature.

"The good college programs that work in English and math and are able to get a whole bunch of their students into the conventional track in a year are courses that take 9 or 10 months to complete," he added. "And, usually, there's a summer program beforehand. The thought that you can do in 5 weeks what colleges take 9 months to do is just unworkable."

Limited Accountability

In fact, states may have difficulty assessing what their various remedial efforts have accomplished. In most places where remedial programs had been set up in response to testing, there were few statewide standards governing either their design or evaluation, Richard Jefferson wrote in 1983 when he was a lawyer with the Center for Law and Education.

A study by the North Carolina Parent and Citizen Test Review Commission of the remediation available to students who failed to pass North Carolina's high-school exit test, for example, found that there was very little accountability or quality control.

The administrators surveyed by the commission overwhelmingly believed that funds for remediation were inadequate; remedial classes in half of the systems surveyed included learning-disabled, educable mentally handicapped, and regular students in the same class; and the curriculum in remedial classes was based heavily on the test itself, although most systems reported that even where there was a standardized curriculum it was not rigidly adhered to.

Ms. First said she does not expect to see a strong effort to evaluate districts' remediation efforts under the new testing programs.

"In places where there's a high political profile in relationship to educational reform and no resources for remediation, I think there will be a reluctance to evaluate very carefully," she said.

"Hopefully, in places where institutions have been thoughtful enough to provide funds, there will be an attempt to evaluate--although what is frightening, and I think unfortunate," Mr. First said, "is that by the time the data are collected and people begin to learn from their experiences, we will have lost a decade's worth or half a decade's worth of kids."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented