Special Report

Turning Up The Heat

By Robert C. Johnston — January 11, 1999 13 min read

Sydney Glass isn’t panicking yet. But the 12-year-old from the District of Columbia knows the pressure will be on this spring when she takes the exam that will determine whether she’ll move on to the 9th grade.

“I just want the teachers to help us with the problems that will be on the test,” says Sydney, an avid dancer who hopes some day to be a teacher. “I hope we cover all the material we need to know.”

Sydney is not alone in facing stiff consequences if she fails.

Students of all grade levels in the nation’s capital and most of the 50 states are being asked to show what they know on a host of new assessments. And the price for failure is high: In many cases, students may be held back or not allowed to graduate.

California, Delaware, South Carolina, and Wisconsin passed laws last year that link promotion to state tests. Twenty-six states also have high school exit exams in place or under development, according to a survey by Education Week.

In a nationally representative survey conducted by Public Agenda in conjunction with Quality Counts, 68 percent of students in schools with high school exit exams said the tests “make them work harder,” while 32 percent said they did not. More than half of high school students in schools without such exams said they would work harder if they had to pass a test in order to graduate.

In the District of Columbia schools, frustration has long been a staple commodity. Educators here are in the throes of tough new accountability measures intended to reverse decades of lax oversight. Success, they say, depends on how much is done to prevent failure rather than simply identify it.

Early in the 1997-98 school year, students here were told they would be flunked if they did not pass the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition at year’s end. At the same time, the 77,000-student system launched an unprecedented remediation program to aid struggling pupils.

''You have to provide a lot of support for students,” Deputy Superintendent Elois Brooks says. “We started all-day tutoring, Saturday school, and found tons of extra resources.”

The 4,000 students who eventually failed the test were required to attend summer school and given a chance to improve their performance. The summer school program enrolled 22,000 students districtwide and cost $10 million.

The efforts to help students and schools turn things around isn’t stopping there, Brooks says. “Now, we’re going to hold teachers and principals accountable. You can’t just do it with students.”

As states plunge deeper into high-stakes accountability for students, they can turn to several local systems for an idea of the demands that arise from placing real consequences on low performance.

The 430,000-student Chicago school system, for example, is in the fourth year of requiring summer school for 8th graders who fail tests in reading and mathematics. Last summer, 4,171 of the city’s 31,199 8th graders had to give up six weeks of their vacation. Of those, about two-thirds were promoted, while 1,377 had to repeat 8th grade.

If we look at evidence about kids retained, they don’t get better over the long term. They fall further behind.

And for the first time, 1,800 Waco, Texas, children in grades 1-8 were forced to attend summer school last year; 771 were ultimately held back.

But officials and parents in the 16,000-student district credit the high stakes for making students serious about academics. They point to Waco’s scores on state exams, which rose 10 percentage points in 1997-98 over the previous year.

“I think I speak for every campus’ PTA when I say it’s a giant step in the right direction,” says Michele Ryan, the president of the Waco Council of PTAs.

At the state level, lawmakers and education officials around the country declared open season last year on social promotion, the practice of advancing students to the next grade despite their lagging academic performance. For example:

  • Outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson of California signed a new law requiring districts to promote students to the next grade only after they pass the state’s academic-skills test, or meet district-set criteria. He also agreed, though, to let teachers override retentions with written explanations about why a student should advance.
  • Delaware’s Educational Accountability Act of 1998 requires students in grades 3, 5, 8, and 10 who test below grade level on state reading and mathematics exams to attend summer school beginning in the 1999-2000 school year.
  • If they are not at grade level after summer school, local school districts may retain the students. “The logic is that if you’re well below standards in reading, it will make it harder to achieve in any other area,” says Democratic Sen. David P. Sokola, who was a cosponsor of the legislation.

  • Under South Carolina’s Accountability Act of 1998, which became effective last fall, 3rd to 8th graders who score below grade level on state tests or in the classroom will go on one-year academic probation. Students who don’t meet the standards after a year will be held back.
  • A Wisconsin law passed last year requires, starting in 2002-03, the retention of 4th and 8th graders who perform below the “basic” level on state tests.
  • Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson argued for the policy in his 1998 State of the State Address: “We must worry more about our children keeping up with their friends in the classroom than on the playground.”

All but drowned out by the furor surrounding social promotion, however, is the cautious voice of education research, which generally has found that holding students back is no guarantee that they’ll eventually catch up. At its worst, researchers say, retention actually pushes students to drop out. “If we look at evidence about kids retained, they don’t get better over the long term. They fall further behind,” says Arthur J. Reynolds, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “All things being equal, social promotion is better than retention.”

It is also hard to ignore, others say, the questions of fairness and consistency that arise when principals and teachers are not held accountable along with students. Of the 19 states that currently require students to pass a test to graduate’ from high school, only two have attempted to link teacher evaluations to student test scores.

In Texas, one-eighth of a teacher’s yearly evaluation is tied to student scores on statewide exams. Tennessee allows principals to consider test scores in teacher evaluations, but only to make recommendations about how to improve classroom instruction.

Assessments “have generally never been tied directly to individual performance, in terms of raises and continuing contracts,” says Wayne Martin, who directs the CCSSO’s state education assessment center. “Instead, many states require public reporting of average student scores. Thus, it’s an indirect pressure.”

On the other hand, Reynolds is quick to concede that states are now coupling student accountability with innovative remediation before slapping young people with consequences that can change their lives. “It’s newfangled retention policy. It’s like ‘retention plus,’” he says.

The obvious issue is that if the state is going to get involved and require these things, the state must provide the funds.

Policymakers are also finding that pursuing strategies that support low-performing students can make for good politics.

In 1997, South Carolina lawmakers failed to generate enough enthusiasm to pass a broad accountability bill. Then, in 1998, they asked school and business groups to help draft the plan that eventually passed. The pivotal compromise was a $36 million student-remediation plan.

“The obvious issue is that if the state is going to get involved and require these things, the state must provide the funds,” says Jim Petrie, the executive director of the South Carolina Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Likewise, California is spending $105 million this school year on intervention programs, such as summer school and tutoring, for students who are at risk of being held back. Delaware is offering state-endorsed high school transcripts and college scholarships, and will offer cash awards to schools as incentives, beginning in 2002.

What’s more important, though, is that Delaware requires schools to craft individual learning plans for the students who are held back. “We don’t want to forget these kids,” Sokola says. “Hopefully, local schools are doing something different to get these students up to the standards.”

But when It comes to favorite targets for student-based accountability, state policymakers are zeroing in on graduation.

According to a survey by Education Week for Quality Counts, 19 states require students to pass exams in order to graduate from high school, and seven others have plans to do so in the future.

All that activity is not just a slight increase over recent years, but the most ever, says Heidi Glidden, an American Federation of Teachers research analyst who tracks such issues. In addition, states are doing a better job of aligning the exams with their standards and making the tests harder.

“It looks like states who have tests now are moving them to a higher level,” Glidden says. “Maybe in two years, we can expect to see states testing at 10th grade levels or above. Mostly, they’ve been testing at 8th and 9th grade levels.”

One of the most ambitious efforts is in New York, where every student will have to earn a “regents’ diploma” to graduate beginning in 2000. Traditionally, the regents’ diploma offered by the state has reflected more rigorous, college-level coursework than the standard high school diploma.

The Empire State is also doing away with lower-level competency tests for all students. The new regents’ exams will include more writing, analysis, and higher-level math. Students hoping to graduate in 2000 will have to pass an English test. Math exams will be required in future years.

Some experts say the revisions promise to push all New York students to higher performance levels.

John H. Bishop, a researcher at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., made some interesting discoveries in a study of 10 districts that require all students to earn the regents’ diploma.

“A whole lot of students who had been escaping to lower-track classes no longer had that option,” he says. “There was a major shift in focus from honors kids. It meant a lot more attention and resources were spent on average students.”

But some districts In New York state and elsewhere worry that their current efforts will be complicated and even watered down by statewide policies.

Michael V. McGill, the superintendent of the 4,200-student Scarsdale, N.Y., schools, says his suburban district will lose flexibility and rigor if it is forced to spend too much time preparing for one state assessment. “We may have to teach content in a particular sequence or context that teachers may not feel was the wisest,” he says.

And even if parents want to deviate from prescriptive test preparation, they may feel stronger about how their children size up against others. “Many people would support an enriched and more rigorous curriculum and one that is more individual and creative than the state’s,” McGill adds. “On the other hand, when test scores come out, they want to be at the top. ...There comes a point when those two objectives collide.”

In Boston, students are getting twice the tests they otherwise would, thanks to school district and state accountability programs. Fourth graders, for example, spent six hours last year on the Stanford-9 for the district and up to 12 hours on the statewide Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant of Boston worries that too much time is being spent on tests, though he acknowledges the need to gather data about schools and districts to measure progress. “It’s the desire to do that which has to be judged against the amount of testing, and that’s what we face now.”

Passing laws that make diplomas more meaningful is one thing. Dealing with the fallout when the scores come out is another thing altogether.

“Setting the high scores makes you feel good today, but that’s not half of the battle,” says Stanley Rabinowitz, a co-director of assessment, standards, and development services at WestEd, an educational consulting group in San Francisco, Calif. “Do you have the fortitude to provide remediation and systemic accountability. Do you even know what to do?”

Student-Performance Incentives

Last April, 15,000 Nevada juniors took the state’s demanding new high school exit exam. One out of five did not score high enough in reading to graduate, and one-third missed the mark in math.

“The reaction was consistent with what you’d see in other states,” says Mary L. Peterson, the state superintendent. “People were pretty shocked by how many didn’t pass. But it shows what we need to focus on and how we need to improve instruction.”

Peterson says there have not been calls to kill the test. But there is new interest in expanding the state’s 1-year-old remediation program, which sent $3 million to 23 low-performing K-12 schools this school year.

In Arizona, meanwhile, some parents aren’t willing to wait for the results of that state’s new exit exam--which is being phased in beginning in the 1998-99 school year--before taking aim at the test.

“I’ve never heard a parent say, ‘Please don’t challenge my children,’ ” says Keri Maughan, a Mesa, Ariz., parent of three school-age daughters who is part of an effort led by a group of parents to overturn the exam. “But you’re taking 12 years of a child’s education and throwing it out the window.”

But if a student can’t pass a basic-skills test at the end of 12 years, others ask, what does that say about the quality of the diploma?

''Youngsters should earn diplomas the old-fashioned way: hard work,” says Dennis P. Doyle, the president of Doyle Associates, a school consulting firm in Chevy Chase, Md. “A diploma is an academic decathlon where students display ability on varied exams. When they satisfy peers and faculty, they get a diploma.”

Amid all these student-accountability efforts, the District of Columbia has become a sort of laboratory where various remedies are being tried.

The most visible step so far may have been last year’s summer school program, which became the largest in Washington’s history after low-performing students were told to attend or be retained.

True, some parents were surprised when children who had earned good grades were told to go to summer school because of low test scores.

On the other hand, the school district won praise for reducing class sizes, focusing instruction on math and phonics-based reading, and maintaining strict attendance requirements in the summer school program. “Here’s a system that’s not just saying we’re going to flunk you if you don’t do well, but we’re going to give you the help you need,” says Delabian L. Rice-Thurston of Parents United, a local advocacy group that monitors the city’s schools.

Setting the high scores makes you feel good today, but that’s not half of the battle.

In addition to the consequences for students, significant penalties await teachers and administrators for children’s failure to improve.

Scores on standardized tests now count for 50 percent of a principal’s evaluation. As a result, two weeks before this school year began, 39 of the principals in the city’s schools retired or were replaced.

A similar teacher-appraisal system took effect at the beginning of the current school year.

Washington teachers argue, however, that school staff members alone cannot turn students around.\ Parents, they say, must complement and support their efforts.

“In our environment, teachers are working their hearts out,” says Sharia Shankling, a 1st grade teacher in the city. “But parents aren’t validating the need for children to do what’s necessary in school.”

Despite the momentum that is rippling through the district’s schools, Rice-Thurston, a longtime parent advocate, has seen school fads come and go as often as politicians. She is not yet convinced that this one will be any different.

“This isn’t the year that will count,” she says. “We’ll see where they are three years from now.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1999 edition of Education Week

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