District Push To Get Students To Forgo Test Assailed

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Gov. John Engler of Michigan, a leader in the charge to use standardized tests to hold schools more accountable, is angry over what he calls efforts by parents and administrators in some districts to undermine those tests.

Students in some Michigan districts have been urged not to take the tests by educators or parents who say the exams are unnecessary or harmful to children's self-esteem. At the other extreme, a principal in one district has offered $100 to students who pass certain exams--a move the governor believes may be illegal.

Linda Beers, the government-relations director for the Michigan Association of School Boards, offered a reason for the tactics employed in such districts. "You have high-stakes tests that determine a school's credibility--what are schools supposed to do?" she said last week.

The governor sympathizes with the pressures such tests can place on educators and parents, but the line must be drawn somewhere, said John Truscott, Mr. Engler's spokesman. And the governor believes working-class Muskegon Heights has crossed it.

This month, Mr. Engler blasted officials in the western Michigan district for asking parents to exempt low-achieving 7th graders from last fall's Michigan Education Assessment Program exam because they were not likely to do well.

The state allows some special education waivers, but Muskegon Heights also sought waivers from parents whose children were truancy problems. Overall, 60 of the district's 179 7th graders did not take the tests.

Danny Smith, the principal of Muskegon Heights Middle School, defended the exemptions. "We need to inform parents of their rights" to obtain waivers, he said last week. "It doesn't go well for the governor to tell parents not to exercise their rights."

Little is accomplished by making troubled students take tests they are bound to fail, he asserted, and his best students suffer from the school's sagging reputation. "My kids suffer esteem problems because people look at these scores and look at our kids and say, 'They're from the Heights,'" Mr. Smith said.

But the Republican governor called the action "outrageous manipulation." He has asked the state education department to investigate. The governor has proposed using test scores as one criterion when considering whether to take control over failing school districts.

"Certainly we can sympathize with his position," Mr. Truscott said of Mr. Smith. "But the MEAP was not meant to be a selective test. It is supposed to reflect districtwide achievement."

Mr. Smith said that 49 of his 7th graders scored "satisfactory" on the reading test last fall, compared with five in 1994. Seventeen students hit that mark on the fall 1996 math test, the same as in 1994. "What we have been doing is working," he said.

Surprising Resistance

On the other side of the state, Mr. Engler has his hands full with the well-to-do Birmingham public schools.

More than half the suburban Detroit district's juniors slated to take the state's new High School Proficiency Test last month were able to opt out because their parents saw no benefit in the test.

The 11-hour exam covers reading, writing, math, and science. Students can score at the proficient, novice, or not-yet-novice level. The results go on their transcripts, and proficient students will get gold seals on their diplomas.

"Why should students who take the HSPT risk the 'punishment' associated with having less-than-proficient test results on their transcripts?" a group of Birmingham parents asked in a letter this month to the state schools chief, Arthur E. Ellis.

Many of their children's friends who attend private schools do not take the test, the parents wrote. And the test is given after most students receive their college-acceptance letters.

Birmingham school officials who want the students to take the test acknowledge, however, that colleges pay little attention to it. District officials worry that having some of the best-performing students opt out of the test could weaken the district's scores on statewide school report cards.

State officials, including Mr. Engler, are displeased with Birmingham's waiver rush. They view the proficiency exams as a cornerstone of the state's efforts to ensure that a high school diploma has genuine value, and they hope to persuade businesses and colleges to acknowledge the results.

"A parent exemption is intended for parents of children with severe disabilities," said Diane Smolen, the director of the state's testing program. "This is inappropriate and certainly not something we expected."

Cash Carrot

The stakes of failing get costly in the Covert public schools near Kalamazoo, where a principal at one school has promised 92 5th and 8th graders that they will get $100 dollars each if they pass the reading and math portions of the MEAP next month.

"I'm hoping that it will be an incentive to do their best, but we won't know till this spring," Superintendent Alfred Hawkins said. But the cash awards, which could cost the 800-student district $10,000, are being reviewed by state officials.

"Mr. Engler encourages experimentation," Mr. Truscott said, "but we don't know if this is legal."

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