Published Online: December 6, 2000
Published in Print: December 6, 2000, as Letters



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Do Tests Measure 'The Real Thing'?

To the Editor:

It's refreshing to find the very people who are imposing our increasing dependence on tests beginning to question what in the world the tests are measuring ("States Question National Reading-Test Scores," Nov. 8, 2000). The complainants are among the very people who in the past have criticized testing skeptics for blaming the messenger, not the message. Indeed, this is a classic case where that criticism is surely warranted.

The simplest explanation, which the local and state commentators you quote never raise, for the odd fact that test scores on the nationally normed Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition are going down in states in which the high-stakes scores on state-invented tests are going up may just be evidence of the obvious: School people under pressure to produce higher scores respond to the test that matters. Reading well is not the name of the game; it's doing well on whatever the particular high-stakes test is that matters. The test-prep folks (Princeton Review, Kaplan, and others) long ago proved that preparation works best when it's focused on the specific test a person is going to take.

Once we unashamedly define "good reading" as whatever it is that the test we're currently using measures, we're in real trouble. A thoughtful, reading-addicted public is hardly a likely outcome of a society hooked on reading tests as the measure of reading. The rise and fall of scores on tests like the Stanford-9 have been the cause for a lot of (I believe false) conclusions about the quality of our reading public for half a century or more. We've been told, over and over, that these tests are measuring "the real thing." It's interesting to see their validity, reliability, and accuracy questioned only because they uncomfortably conflict with even more unreliable state tests.

Maybe it's time to question whether any test can replace sound and publicly responsible judgments made on the basis of a range of always- fallible data. (Standardized reading tests have a value if they could ever be returned to that long-lost purpose.) Maybe it's time to invest in studies about the real-life reading habits of our students and graduates that different school practices produce; maybe we need to "align" lifelong good habits to school-rewarded reading practices.

That would be a promising approach to a reliable accountability system, and, fortunately, we have some great examples of how it could be done (for example, the work of the 40 New York state high schools with a history of using a tougher and broader system of accountability that relies openly on the judgment of respected but far-from-perfect peers and includes among its outcome measures data on what happens to graduates once they leave for the real world).

The proof of our work lies in the hard data of real kids' present and future lives, not scores on "soft," highly manipulable tests, whether they are politically or psychometrically normed.

Deborah Meier
Mission Hill School
Roxbury, Mass.

Distracting Leaders From True Tasks

To the Editor:

Thank you for the excellent essay by Thomas E. Glass on "The Shrinking Applicant Pool" for the superintendency (Commentary, Nov. 8, 2000). As a retired superintendent, I couldn't be in more agreement with his comments. It is a shame that the National School Boards Association and particularly our California School Boards Association don't pay more attention to articles like this and to the messages they contain.

Micromanagement by boards and demands from both the community and the boards to comply with their wishes rather than the needs and concerns of students distract district leaders from the true and extremely important task of improving educational opportunities.

LaVerne Carlson
San Diego, Calif.

Authority Figures Must Earn Respect

To the Editor:

I found Louis Chandler's essay "Who's in Charge?," (Commentary, Nov.15, 2000) to be somewhat misleading. Schools have a responsibility to prepare students to be both responsible members of and active and thoughtful participants in society and its institutions. Students should be taught respect for, but not unquestioning acceptance of authority.

These issues have been debated in the literature for decades and will not be revisited here. I prefer to focus on three "current practices" Mr. Chandler suggests may be "undermining traditional roles of teachers."

• Cooperative Learning. If a teacher used this approach exclusively, he or she could certainly be accused of abdicating the role of authority figure, but in observations of hundreds of teachers, I have yet to encounter one in which cooperative learning was used to the exclusion of other teaching methods. Much of the curriculum cannot be effectively taught using cooperative learning. It is very effective when used in combination with more formal exposition, and when the students are clear that the teacher is allowing them to use this approach while retaining authority.

Peer Mediation. Conflict management, empathy, and other interpersonal skills may be as important as algebra, understanding the causes of the Civil War, or literary criticism to a citizen of the 21st century. We can't really teach those attributes, but encouraging them seems well within the purview of the school. Again, if the institution has no hierarchical structure, peer mediation might undermine a student's respect for authority. However, giving the student a chance to experience decisionmaking in a hierarchical environment where most decisions are made for him or her (which is usually the case) seems to me to be responsible schooling.

• Fun and Games. This is a bit of a "straw man" argument. The opportunity to dunk the principal is only an attraction where the principal is a strong authority figure. It's not much fun to dunk a wimp. That's the whole point: By allowing this seeming transgression, the authority figure is going against type, but there is little doubt that he or she will be back in charge on Monday morning. It's a way to make the point that something (reading, for example) is so important that the emperor is willing to step down from the throne, if only for a moment. In fact, it often enhances his or her effective leadership by disclosing a human side.

I'm afraid the time in which a person gains respect simply by occupying a position of authority is behind us. A 21st-century education must prepare students for the real world in which long-term authority is no longer automatic, but must be earned.

Ian A. C. Rule
Educational Consultant
Dallas, Texas

Learning Rests With Students, Not System

To the Editor:

The primary determinant of a good education, whether in grade school or in college, is the student's motivation and desire to succeed. Unfortunately, in our search to cast blame and find an easy fix, the country's raging debate on education has focused almost entirely on the system.

Do we need good teachers, up-to-date textbooks, more computers, and modern classrooms? Yes. Do we need a way to measure our success in educating our children and identify where improvements need to be made? Yes. But parental responsibility, the most critical element in a grade school education, is being left out of the debate.

We want good teachers, but are not willing to support them. We want higher standards, but are not willing to enforce them. We want higher test scores, but discount the validity of the test. We want our children to succeed in school, but not at the expense of success in extracurricular activities.

If our schools were palaces, our teachers paid like Bill Gates, and our curriculum unrivaled in the world, we still could not have a successful school system without the involvement of parents who encourage their children, foster a love of learning, and promote the desire, discipline, and sacrifice needed to succeed in school.

W. David McIlvain
Huntington, W.Va.

Fighting the 'Worship of Accountability'

To the Editor:

William L. Taylor's strong support of accountability, standards, and tests ("Standards, Tests, And Civil Rights," Commentary, Nov. 15, 2000) fails to face reality on two counts. He recognizes the first of these in his essay; he never even mentions the second.

After praising the achievements and prospects of these three elements of learning improvement, Mr. Taylor admits indirectly the lack of opportunity that is rampant in many American schools: "Of course, all of this will work only if the tests are fair, nondiscriminatory, and representative of what teachers cover in class. ... In cases where students test poorly on material they were never taught or taught only poorly, the school, not the students, should be held accountable."

After making these assertions, he goes on to demand that Uncle Sam take care of the problems:

"Federal officials must insist that these opportunities are provided, both in the form of retesting and in resources that give students an opportunity to succeed."

Mr. Taylor's failure resides in his lack of recognition that thousands of teachers and millions of students are failing for reasons over which they have little or no control. Yet, he insists on misused tests and the worship of accountability. He rationalizes this highly questionable posture by arguing that "teachers and schools can succeed without the resources that others have." This half-truth is simply unreasonable.

Mr. Taylor's second failure is common to many purveyors of accountability, standards, and tests. He gives no attention at all to the vast difference in opportunities between students from poor families as compared to youngsters from middle- and upper-class families. From birth to age 18, children spend about 10 percent of their lives in school and the remainder in their homes and communities. The scores on tests that they take at school are powerfully influenced by nonschool opportunities.

Without attention to these facts, accountability, standards, and tests are unfair and unreasonable. Furthermore, new strategies to enrich the lives of youngsters outside of schools and to strengthen families are just as important as test scores—maybe more.

Harold Howe II
Hanover, N.H.

Lax Discipline and Poor Teacher Results

To the Editor:

In almost every election, we hear a lot about education and how to improve the school system. Hiring new teachers is not a total solution. Retaining teachers is a problem, too. Many leave teaching for better-paying jobs, a safer environment, and more job security.

It is hard for a teacher to teach when he or she does not know if an antagonistic student has a weapon he might use. Schools need strong rules and guidelines to deal with all types of disciplinary problems, and parents should be held responsible for the actions of their kids.

Education is primarily the parents' responsibility and not the state's. Special alternative schools or military academies should be established to teach problem children. If the rules in schools are too liberal, then we shouldn't expect good results.

Pete Dvorak
Manassas, Va.

The Middle Grades: A Forum's 'Vision'—and Questions About Rigor

I applaud your recent special supplement on the challenges and possibilities of middle-grades education ("Middle Grades: Feeling the Squeeze," Oct. 4, 2000). You provided administrators, teachers, and parents with a great deal of information on the history of middle- grades reform, current tensions and struggles, and promising practices.

Sixteen people interviewed for the supplement are members of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, a group of about 45 individuals dedicated to making high-performing middle-grades schools the norm across this country. Collectively, we have a wealth of experience in middle-level education. For the past three years, we have been working together to accelerate learning and foster the healthy development of middle-grades youngsters nationwide. As the facilitator of the national forum, I feel it necessary to clarify some important messages about middle-grades education that may be misunderstood by readers or obscured by your use of phrases like "feeling the squeeze" and the "weak link."

First, the forum's vision of high-performing middle-grades schools represents a continuation and elaboration of previous middle-grades reform efforts. Neither our work nor the recently published "Turning Points 2000" should be interpreted as a pendulum swing back to the failed junior high school model that preceded the modern middle-grades reform movement. According to the forum, high-performing middle-grades schools are characterized by three elements: academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity— and we view these elements as inextricably linked. We envision schools where (1) all students learn to use their minds well; (2) the standards are high for all students; (3) high-quality teaching and challenging classes are offered to every child, along with extra help and supports for those who need them; and (4) the unique challenges faced by young adolescents are respected, and attending to such needs is not outside the school's purview.

Second, the forum's message is not a message of failure, but of hope. We know that such schools are possible. Two schools featured in your supplement were selected by the national forum as "Schools to Watch": Barren County Middle School in Glasgow, Ky., and Freeport Intermediate School in Freeport, Texas. Other forum schools to watch include Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Chicago and Jefferson Middle School in Champaign, Ill. But many more such schools exist. Middle-grades schools in North Carolina and Texas, for example, have shown dramatic improvement on statewide assessments over the past several years. Schools in Long Beach, Calif., and San Diego have made considerable progress as part of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation's Program for Student Achievement. And schools participating in Michigan Middle Start, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Middle-Grades State Systemic Policy Initiative, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, have all demonstrated marked improvements. Most important is that the more these schools reflect the forum's vision of high performance, the better their student outcomes.

Third, the national forum purposely uses the phrase "middle grades" reform in our title rather than "middle school" reform. It's not the grade structure that makes a school a positive learning environment for young adolescents, it's what goes on within the school community. "Middle-grades schools" refers to any school with two contiguous grades including grade 7. A K-8 school can be a high-performing middle-grades school, if it integrates all three elements of our vision. Similarly, a 5-8, 6-8, 7-9, or 6-9 school can also be effective in meeting the needs of young adolescents. High performance can be achieved in any grade configuration, so let's not get distracted by changing grade configurations. Rather, let's make all middle-grades schools high-performing.

Finally, we know what it takes to create high-performing middle-grades schools. In such schools, everyone in the school community is inspired by a shared vision of excellence. The school has a team that leads its improvement effort, but learning is everyone's job: The principal spends a part of every day visiting classrooms and providing feedback, teachers work in small groups to look at student work and discuss improving their practice, and parents are actively engaged in their children's learning. Teachers participate in ongoing professional development that increases their knowledge and skills. The school is part of a larger learning community. It collaborates with parents, community groups, businesses, colleges, and universities, while also linking with networks of educators. Finally, the school holds itself accountable and constantly checks on its progress in making the vision real.

With these ideas in mind, we issue a call to action: We urge every middle-grades school to develop a vision of excellence and create the structures and processes that lead to continuous improvement. For those readers who would like to see the forum's vision and criteria for high performance in their entirety, I encourage them to turn to

Nancy Ames
National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform
Education Development Center Inc.
Newton, Mass.

To the Editor:

I appreciate your editorial focus on middle schools, and am grateful none of my own children attended one. How did education's emphasis evolve from challenging students to coddling them?

The middle school movement grew in the 1980s, emphasizing students' emotional and social needs, self- esteem, and a cooperative learning environment. Educrats who pushed for these "reforms" argued that students who feel good about themselves perform better academically. It should be noted that this was the same era in which phonics disappeared from reading instruction, and fuzzy discovery math replaced programs based on sequenced skills and concepts.

Somehow, the line between elementary and secondary teachers was blurred. Today's middle schools are filled with elementary-credentialed teachers who, a few decades ago, would not have been permitted in classrooms beyond grade 6. I cannot comprehend how that occurred—did nobody grasp the consequences? But the results are clear. The rigorous academics of traditional junior high grades 7 and 8 have been diluted in middle schools staffed by elementary teachers.

No blame is directed at teachers, who serve at the discretion of educrats. Teachers have the least input of any group in our education system, now being comandeered by politicians, publishers, and business leaders. Blaming teachers when students fail to reach test-based standards, despite factors beyond their control, further erodes teacher morale and effectiveness.

It is the curricular content in middle schools that has diluted academic achievement, and that is also beyond the control of teachers. Your article "Algebra Benefits All Students, Study Finds," (Nov. 15, 2000) states: "Some experts have called for supplanting elementary and middle school math programs, which tend to focus on basic math skills, with a curriculum that builds algebraic-reasoning skills." What an idea!

Middle schools, in which elementary teachers predominate, offer an extended elementary school curriculum. Traditional junior high schools, taught by teachers qualified for high school courses, taught content that prepared students for success in those high school courses. They were part of a curricular continuum. Algebra offers a perfect example.

During the '60s, '70s, and '80s, junior high students studied rigorous pre-algebra courses prior to taking algebra. When the feel-good, discovery-math era arrived in 1989, courtesy of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards, pre-algebra textbooks and courses were often deleted. This was the era of middle schools, and rigorous pre-algebra was perhaps considered too challenging for students with fragile self-esteem. Further, elementary teachers were not always comfortable teaching algebra.

Today, all over America, bright, capable students begin high school by taking a 9th grade algebra course for which they are totally unprepared. Your article states that "some math educators argue the traditional algebra course—offered in 8th or 9th grade without providing students with the prerequisite foundation in algebraic thinking—only sets students up for failure."

Actually, it is more than "algebraic thinking" that is missing. There is a whole foundation of math skills and concepts necessary for success in algebra. Pre-algebra courses taught integers and exponents, solving multistep equations and inequalities, a geometry unit, and graphing linear equations, along with mastery of fractions, decimals, percents, and various approaches to problem-solving.

Middle schools have lost that continuum of rigorous content, duly diluted to meet mandates for emotional and social well- being. There is little or no communication between middle school and high school teachers, crucial in cumulative subjects like mathematics and to students' success and well-being. How do students fare when they meet failure in high school courses for which they are unprepared? Did the educrats foresee the ripple effect of their "reforms"?

Another article, "Middle School Students 'Gear Up' for College," (Nov. 8, 2000), shows the muddle we are in. Too many middle school students are not focused on, nor preparing for, college. Hence, Gear Up is a national effort directed at middle schools and determined "to promote rigorous, college-bound coursework and to increase college awareness."

The problem is that middle schools have an elementary school atmosphere, not the traditional secondary school rigor that focused on preparation for college and adulthood.

Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Willard, Ohio

Vol. 20, Issue 14, Pages 38-39

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