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Amid Publicity Over Declining Scores, Acclaimed Saturn School Faces Review

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By Jonathan Weisman

Facing negative publicity over declining test scores at the Saturn School of Tomorrow, the new schools superintendent in St. Paul has ordered a review of the experimental school's curriculum and management.

The school, which drew national attention last May when President Bush visited and hailed it as the kind of education innovation the Administration seeks to support, has been seen in a different light by some local observers.

The news media in Minnesota's Twin Cities have reported that scores have dropped each of the three times Saturn students have taken the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in mathematics, reading, and language since the high-technology-oriented magnet school opened in 1989.

Elsewhere in the school district, scores have been rising, according to the news reports. Some critics have blamed the disparities on the Saturn School's reliance on technology and its lack of traditionally structured programs.3

The district will not officially release the scores until late summer, when the evaluation ordered by the superintendent is due.3

"I want to know where we are, the issues and problems involving staff and parents, and I want to develop an action plan on how to move Saturn forward," Curman Gaines, who took over this month as St. Paul's superintendent, said in explaining the purpose of the review.

Mr. Gaines admitted his concern about declining scores, but added, "That is not to say, however, that I'm not a supporter" of the school.

Much of the concern over Saturn pupils' performance centers on mathematics. The students' average standardized-test score in that subject has declined by 10 points over the past two years, according to news reports, which also cite slight declines in the other subjects tested.

Claudia Swanson, a school-board member with a 9-year-old child at Saturn, said her son's math skills have declined because, given the choice of what to study, he, like many others, has neglected the subject.

She said she would be pushing for more structure in math study.

No 'Magic Formula'

Saturn officials and other backers say the school is working out kinks and must be judged as a pilot project.

"We didn't come in there with a magic formula that says, 'This is how you do it,"' said Tom King, director of the Saturn project, on building a substantially restructured school. "Nobody knows how to do it."

Mr. King added that those who call the school "free-wheeling" or L unstructured do not understand what it is trying to do.

"It is very structured," he said, "but the structure is around the student, not the classroom."

Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute, who has two children at the school, argued that blame for declining scores rests with factors beyond the school's control.

Much of the computer equipment was not installed until well into the school's first year, he said, and some of the software has not lived up to manufacturers' claims.

For instance, because students are supposed to progress at their own pace, Mr. Nathan said, some of the pupils have actually worked faster than the software makers could produce new programs. Other software that guaranteed a specific amount of progress if used a specified amount of time, he said, has not passed muster.

Mr. Nathan, a nationally known analyst of school-choice programs, also noted that, while the school has attracted many of the district's most ambitious students, it has also enrolled many who were not performing well in more traditional schools.,

And some teachers have been as signed to the school who do not sub scribe to its philosophy, he claimed.

"The Saturn School is becoming a classic example of the challenge of creating a distinctive school in a large, bureaucratic system," he said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said in an interview this month that he knew about the declining scores before scheduling the President's visit. But, he said, "what we've touted about the school is the willingness of people to break the mold and to think differently."

"Whenever people experiment, there will be failure," Mr. Alexander said. "One of the problems with American education is everybody thinks everything has to be a 100 percent success from the start.''

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