A District Ties Goals to Scores

By Robert Rothman — March 22, 1989 15 min read

A two-part look at the policy focus on standardized testing. This week, one district’s unusually keen interest.

Upper Marlboro, Md--Whenever John A. Murphy wants to see how any school in his district is performing on standardized tests, all he has to do is walk into the conference room adjoining his office.

There, the superintendent of the Prince George’s County, Md., school district has replaced the student artwork that adorned the walls when he took office five years ago with charts showing each school’s test scores.

The room--known as the “applied anxiety” room--has become a powerful symbol of Mr. Murphy’s intention to boost academic achievement in this majority-black suburban-Washington district. His goal, he has stated repeatedly since 1984, is to raise the district’s average test score to the 75th percentile nationally by 1990 and to reduce the gap between the scores of black and white pupils.

“We want to prove public education works for minority kids,” he says. “If it can happen in Prince George’s County, it can happen anywhere.”

To Mr. Murphy, the emphasis on test-score improvement is merely the most visible manifestation of a larger effort to raise student performance by setting high standards and holding schools accountable for meeting them.

These efforts have paid off in more positive attitudes towards his schools among pupils and the community, he says, and have won the district acclaim from a wide range of national educators.

This month, for example, the American Association of School Administrators, citing Mr. Murphy’s “outstanding contribution to student achievement” awarded him the annual “Leadership for Learning” award.

‘Window Dressing’?

But to others, including some parents and teachers, the improvements represent, at best, little more than “window dressing” that masks genuine problems in the schools.

Moreover, they contend, the effort has placed undue pressure on teachers and administrators to raise scores. The tests in turn have driven the curriculum and instruction, they maintain, and areas not tested--including higher-order skills and topics such as science and social studies--have suffered.

“There have been major improvements,” acknowledges Marjorie Spirer, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association. “But does that truly reflect the quality of education, or the effort teachers are putting into it? It doesn’t.”

“We can affect positively the quality of test scores,” she notes, ''but that might not reflect what the kids are actually learning.”

Such debates have been occurring with increasing frequency around the country as policymakers have turned to tests to make judgments affecting student promotion, graduation, remediation, allocation of funds to districts, merit pay for teachers, school and district accreditation, and teacher certification.

The proliferation of what have been dubbed “high stakes” testing programs--meaning that the results have political and policy ramifications--worries at least some education officials. They point in particular to the possibility that the emphasis on testing distorts the instructional process in classrooms.

In Florida, for example, Commissioner of Education Betty Castor has recently ordered a study to determine whether state and local testing requirements are necessary.

And in Vermont, state officials, led by Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills, are developing a new form of student assessment that would include student work portfolios, as well as tests, to avoid the reliance on a single numerical score.

But here in Prince George’s Coun4ty, the tool that used to be the “negative indicator” has been refashioned as the benchmark of positive change. And the new approach appears to have galvanized this 105,000-pupil district, the 16th-largest in the country and in many ways a microcosm, its officials note, of the national education scene.

Home to the University of Maryland and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the county also shares many of the ills--including poverty, drugs, and violence--that have plagued neighboring Washington and other urban centers.

Under Mr. Murphy’s leadership, the school system also has received a good deal of national attention--some wanted, some unwanted--over the past decade. Required by federal-court order to achieve racial balance, the district has been cited for its development of one of the most extensive magnet-schools programs in the country. But it was hit in January with a U.S. Justice Department suit over its practice of assigning teachers on the basis of race.

The centerpiece of the district’s policies remains, according to Mr. Murphy, the effort to raise student achievement that began soon after he became superintendent in 1984.

At that time, he says, lawmakers and parents were pointing to pupils’ poor performance on the state-mandated California Achievement Tests, which were administered annually in the 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades, as evidence of the district’s declining educational standards. The low scores had diminished public support for schools, Mr. Murphy says, and there was “little belief in the quality of education.”

Turnaround in ‘Confidence’

To turn that situation around, he proposed that the district set itself the goal of raising average cat scores from just above the national average to the 75th percentile, or better than three fourths of all scores in the national comparison group.

“We decided to use the same measure that was used as a negative indicator,” he says, “to turn around confidence in the school system.”

But his goal called for superior performance, the superintendent argues, citing a recent study by a West Virginia advocacy group, which found that the overwhelming majority of school districts nationwide attained “above average” scores on standardized tests.

“People criticize ‘average,”’ he explains. “That wouldn’t be significant. In order to be making significant gains, we would have to be where the better school systems are.”

In addition to setting an ambitious improvement goal, the superintendent took what was at that point a controversial second step: He decided to release test-score data by race for the first time.

The move underscored the gap between whites’ and blacks’ scores, but Mr. Murphy vowed to narrow the discrepancy.

To signal the importance of his testing policy and ensure that its goal was met he redecorated his conference room and highlighted performance data in district publications and the local media.

“Everybody in the community is aware of what is happening performance-wise in the schools,” he says. “Parents, teachers, and administrators know it.”

‘Excitement for Learning’

The results have attracted the attention of educators around thecountry.

“The increase in student achievement over time appeared to be significant,” says Donald Thomas, former superintendent of the Salt Lake City schools, who nominated Mr. Murphy for the “Leadership for Learning” award.

In addition, Mr. Thomas points out, the Prince George’s schools achieved a “very significant” narrowing of the gap between the performance levels of low-income and high-income students.

“If they are doing well on the tests,” the former superintendent says, “they ought to be complimented.”

According to district figures released in January, between 1984 and 1988 3rd graders’ scores rose from the 58th percentile to the 73rd percentile; 5th graders improved from the 58th percentile to the 68th percentile; and 8th graders went from the 56th percentile to the 68th percentile.

As with most standardized tests, students’ scores on the cat are comel15lpared with those of a national “norming group” who took the test some years before.

During the same four-year period, the gap between the scores of black and white students in Prince George’s County narrowed from 25 percentile points to 18.

The gains far outpaced those of any other school system in the state, notes Ellwood L. Loh, director of the county’s department of evaluation and research.

Perhaps more impressive, Mr. Murphy says, have been the gains in student and community attitudes.

“If you walk through schools and look at faces,” he says with pride, “you’ll see an excitement for learning that was not there five years ago.”

“That tells me more than cat scores tell me,” the superintendent adds.

‘What Have Pupils Learned?’

But some skeptics question whether such gains reflect real advances in students’ learning.

“Murphy is proud of the climbing test scores,” says Jerry K. Patterson, a social-studies teacher at Greenbelt Middle School. “But I don’t see that reflected in [improvements in] the way children use the English language in their everyday lives.”

Moreover, adds Hugh D. Jascourt, president of the County Council of PTA’s, the gains in test scores have come about because teachers drill students on the skills to be tested. Such drills, he says, reduce the amount of time teachers can spend on other areas of the curriculum that may be at least as important.

“What have pupils really learned?” he asks. “Have they only learned what the tests asked them to?”

“The skills [on the test] are not inappropriate,” adds Helen H. Thiers, a 2nd-grade teacher at District Heights Elementary School. “But the time spent focusing on practicing those exercises would be better spent on learning the curriculum.”

Positive Attitudes

Critics and school officials do agree, however, that the changes that have taken place came about because building-level administrators and teachers responded immediately to Mr. Murphy’s challenges and adjusted their schools’ goals, curricula, and instructional pracaccordingly.

“A lot depended on the reactions of local schools,” recalls George M. Yates Jr., principal of Melwood Elementary School, the school attended by Mr. Murphy’s son. “We took it as our challenge.”

The most effective reforms, says Sarah Johnson, chairman of the school board, have been in the attitudes of teachers.

“We have the same teachers we had five years ago,” she points out, “and you’re looking at students from the same basic background.”

“The difference is,” she adds, “because we emphasized the idea that all students can learn, teachers bought into that philosophy.”

“They believe that all students will perform, and will perform well,” the school-board chairman says. “That is passed on to the youngster.”

In many schools, she and others point out, administrators have, for the first time, made major efforts to set high expectations for student performance.

“As youngsters walk through the building, in the cafeteria, and in classrooms,” says Patricia Green, principal of Columbia Park Elementary School, “we are making sure we are giving positive reinforcement to what we expect children to do, not reinforcing what we don’t want them to do.”

These changes, she notes, range from reducing the number of suspensions to reframing the school’s rules in positive terms. “They say, ‘Answer politely,”’ she notes, rather than ‘Do not answer rudely.”’

Efforts to boost students’ confidence and to reinforce the value of academic achievement are essential in areas where students must walk through drug- and crime-infested streets to attend school, adds Carl S. Barham, principal of Dodge Park Elementary School.

“To counteract the elements,” he says, “we’re involved in an ongoing effort to increase children’s confidence, and make them believe they can be successful.”

Schools have also created incentives for high performance. Columbia Park’s “four-star generals"--who have mastered the four basic arithmetic operations--win trips to Washington during Black History Month, notes Ms. Green, the principal.

“They can see it is valued to be a high-achieving Columbia Park student,” she says.

Curricular Reforms

At the same time, she and others note, Mr. Murphy’s emphasis on test-score improvement prompted schools to adjust their curricula and instruction to reflect the tests’ goals.

“If we hadn’t had the emphasis on test scores,” says Christel Cady, principal of Ridgecrest Elementary School, “I doubt we’d have taken as good a look” at those areas.

“There is merit to it,” adds Bette L. Lewis, principal of Martin Luther King Middle School. “Not just to try to do well on the test, but to acquire the skills that have been determined to be important for success.”

In many schools, principals and teachers altered their curricular sequence in order to match that of the test.

“If you’re testing long division in 5th grade,” Mr. Murphy says, “it’s silly to teach it in 6th grade.”

In other schools, teachers changed the way they taught topics to reflect the way they were presented on the tests.

For example, notes Ms. Cady of the Ridgecrest school, since the cat asks students to pick out a misspelled word from among several words rather than to spell words, “we teach more spelling in the test’s format.”

At the District Heights Elementary School, 3rd and 5th graders also receive an additional hour per day of computer time in the two months preceding the cat, notes the school’s principal, Carrie J. Irby.

Diagnostic Tool

Teachers at several schools--including District Heights--have also modified their own tests to match the format of the cat. Such efforts are aimed at helping youngsters become familiar with the fill-in-the-bubble, multiple-choice tests, officials say.

“That’s always an important part,” says Mr. Loh, the district’s testing director. “We don’t want kids not to do well because they didn’t understand the format.”

In addition to serving as a measure of instructional progress, the cat has also become a useful diagnostic tool, administrators contend. By using data from the tests, together with data from criterion-referenced tests based on the district’s curriculum, schools can target areas for improvement, they point out.

“We looked at the reading data,” recalls Ms. Green of Columbia Park, “and we noted that as other scores were going up, scores on reading comprehension were not.”

In response, she notes, “we broke the pattern of going lock-step through the reading textbook.”

The test results have also helped district officials determine where to place additional resources, according to Mr. Murphy.

“From the test data this year,” he says, “we have identified 15 ‘problem schools’ that are not performing where we want them to be.”

“We’ll take an in-depth look at each of these schools,” he adds, “and determine what factors are contributing to the slow growth.”

“In many cases,” he suggests, “the problem is the distribution of resources rather than the quality of teaching taking place in the school.”

But in some instances, he notes, district officials “have replaced principals where there hasn’t been the growth that was expected.”

“If we can show clearly that there was a teaching problem, or a leadership problem,” Mr. Murphy says, “we’ll take corrective action.” He adds, however, that this has happened only “seven to nine times.”

Different Teams

But while such practices have led to improved scores, some teachers question whether students have in fact learned more.

“Because of pressures to do well and an overemphasis on test preparation,” says Ms. Thiers of District Heights, “the scores were bound to go up.”

“But that is not a true measure of achievement,” she argues.

“Even if students do well,” adds Ms. Spirer of the teachers’ union, “they aren’t learning what teachers believe the curriculum is calling for them to deal with.”

Moreover, notes Mr. Jascourt of the pta, test-score changes can reflect differences in student characteristics, regardless of what schools do.

“An outstanding coach doesn’t end up with outstanding teams every year,” he points out. “There’s only so much you can do.”

In fact, Ms. Spirer adds, teachers are often held responsible for circumstances beyond their control.

“If a student is tested in the 3rd grade during the second month,” she explains, “the 3rd-grade teacher is not the person with primary responsibility for dealing with that student’s education.”

Schools’ Hierarchy

Moreover, the test-score improvements have come at a considerable cost, according to critics. Specifically, they suggest, by emphasizing the material that is tested, schools have placed less of an emphasis on skills and knowledge that are not tested.

According to Mr. Patterson of the Greenbelt Middle School, “It’s almost as though we have forsaken literature in order to teach how to do well on a reading test.”

In addition, says Ms. Thiers, 3rd- and 5th-grade teachers spend the first two months of each year focusing on math and reading, since those subjects are covered in the test. Only after the test, she says, do teachers introduce science and social studies.

“Later in the year, when you try to do a science fair, children are not prepared,” she points out.

“Yes, we have cut back on some areas by focusing on a ‘back-to-basics’ curriculum,” acknowledges Mr. Yates of the Melwood school. “Yes, social studies and health have suffered a bit. I don’t know what the answer is.”

Denis P. Doyle, an education researcher who has studied the Prince George’s district, suggests that Mr. Murphy has made the appropriate trade-off.

“In the beginning of a child’s experience in school, as you shift attention to reading and math, something else receives less attention,” says Mr. Doyle, senior research fellow at the Hudson Institute. “That’s as it should be.”

“What schools have been unable to do,” he adds, “is establish a hierarchy of what’s important and what’s not.” But if they fail to recognize that there is such a hierarchy, he warns, “they are courting serious problems.”

Invidious Comparisons

Mr. Jascourt also points out that the emphasis on test scores has led to a competition among schools that is not always healthy. Whatever the merits of an individual school’s programs, he says, parents rate schools solely on the basis of cat scores.

“It’s driven by the newspapers,” he argues. “It’s not driven by attitudes, or people, but created by what they read.”

“I’m always concerned about an over-emphasis on test scores,” says Mr. Yates of the Melwood school, citing a phone conversation he has just completed with a parent who was shopping for the right school and inquired about Melwood’s cat scores.

“But I’m a realist,” he adds. “It’s the one thing the public sees. It’s a fact of life, and you have to deal with it.”

For some Prince George’s teachers, however, the focus on test results means that other important facts of education life--for example, that pupils are individuals who develop in individual ways--must languish in the shadow of rising performance curves.

Says one 3rd-grade teacher: “I’d rather see a chart that shows how positive kids feel about themselves than a chart that shows how well they’re doing on the cat.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 1989 edition of Education Week as A District Ties Goals to Scores