Published Online: February 19, 1997

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Phila. Assailed for Large Numbers Of 11th Grade 'No Shows' on Tests

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When the Philadelphia schools administered a battery of standardized tests last spring, the effort to gauge students' knowledge stumbled badly with 11th graders.

In some high schools, 60 percent to 70 percent of the juniors who were slated to take the Stanford Achievement Tests in reading, math, and science were not tested.

Critics of Superintendent David W. Hornbeck's accountability system--which includes standardized-test results--say the large number of untested students will make it easy for schools to show improvement simply by testing more students in the future. The tests are given to students in the 4th, 8th, and 11th grades.

Under the system approved by the school board last fall, each untested student earns a school a zero, while those who take the test and score at the lowest level generate two-tenths of a point.

"Maybe this was intentionally thrown at schools so the scores would be low and they could factor in zeros, thereby in the next round [of testing] showing improvement and claiming credit for it," said Jack Steinberg, the director of educational affairs for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Dan Geringer, a columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News, also took the district to task for the low turnout, charging that "accountability scores will rise as surely as hot air" when more students are tested.

Problems Identified

But district officials insist their accountability plan is sound and note that the problem of untested students isn't unique to their city. What is unusual, they say, is making public the fact that many high school students aren't taking these type of tests.

"The most significant strength of the accountability system we're putting in place is that it does show where the problems are," William Epstein, a spokesman for the district, said last week. "We don't feel any shame at all in having gone out and done the assessments and published the results. We know where we have to go now."

Maxine Bleich, the president of Ventures in Education, a nonprofit consulting firm that works with troubled urban high schools, agreed that it is not uncommon for many students to shun standardized tests, particularly when they have little incentive to take them.

Students often skip school when they know it's testing day, she said, and sometimes are encouraged not to come by teachers who fear that their poor performance will drag down scores.

"This is a real serious issue," Ms. Bleich said. "It's a challenge for a school district to be able to get across to the workforce that testing is diagnostic and helpful."

No Incentives

The information on the number of Philadelphia students tested was made public last month, when Mr. Hornbeck released report cards for each of the city's 257 schools.

Each school was given a two-year target for improvement, based on test scores, student and staff attendance, and promotion and graduation rates.

The district's figures showed that many high schools failed to test large numbers of their 11th graders.

At University City High, for example, 44.6 percent of the 350 11th graders weren't tested in reading, 56.2 percent didn't take the math exam, and 70.6 percent missed the science test.

James Lytle, the principal of University City, said there were a number of reasons for the poor participation.

"The incentive for taking this test for kids was rather minimal," Mr. Lytle said. "It doesn't relate to either their report card marks, college admission, or anything. In that sense, the kids weren't inclined to show up."

The tests also were given a month after high school students had spent 12 hours taking state-mandated tests, the principal noted, and after some had sat for college-admissions tests.

Finally, both students and teachers were unfamiliar with the test itself, the Stanford 9, which replaced the California Test of Basic Skills. The Stanford tests are more demanding, Mr. Lytle said, with longer reading passages and open-ended questions requiring writing.

"The kids found them overwhelming," he said. "I'm not arguing they shouldn't know how to do this stuff. I'm just saying the tests themselves were different and demanding and that may have been the reason why there was resistance."

Mr. Steinberg complained that the tests don't match the curriculum or the standards adopted for Philadelphia students.

"It's pretty outrageous," he said. "It all has to be aligned. When we complain about that, the response is that the horrible teachers are simply trying to obstruct reform."

District administrators say the Stanford 9 test reflects national standards for what students should know and be able to do. These are aligned with the new standards and curriculum resources developed for Philadelphia schools.

Future test scores should reflect achievement gains based on teaching to higher standards, they say.

The charge that schools can improve their rankings simply by testing more students--even if many of them score at the lowest level--is not true, Mr. Epstein contended. To make their performance goals, schools must increase by 10 percent the number of students achieving at the "basic" level or above over a two-year period.

Mr. Lytle said he believes the accountability system places too much emphasis on standardized test scores, which make up 60 percent of a school's score.

"What matters to parents at our school," he said, "is whether kids finish and go on to college or work--whether your kid survives."

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