Just Saying No

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Birmingham, Mich.

The widespread refusal of parents in one of Michigan's most affluent districts to let their children take a new high school proficiency test has thrown a wrench into the state's race toward tougher coursework and statewide exams.

In the wake of the rebellion in this Detroit suburb, some policymakers are rethinking the test. Others want to clamp down on the waivers that let parents opt their 11th graders out of taking it.

Many Birmingham parents say they simply decided that the 11-hour reading, writing, math, and science exam offered no rewards for their college-bound children.

"The benefit didn't outweigh the potential for disaster," said Betsy Hanna, whose daughter, Elizabeth, sat out the test. "We are like tigresses. You touch our cubs, and we're onto you."

The irony of the situation here hasn't been lost on educators in Michigan and elsewhere: Informed, upscale parents who would be expected to most heartily welcome rigorous new assessments are the very ones refusing to accept them.

As similar efforts to hold students and educators to stricter standards gain steam nationwide, state and national leaders may find valuable lessons in Michigan's dilemma. That includes President Clinton, who is trying to build support for new national tests for 4th and 8th graders.

"There is momentum now," said John F. Jennings, the co-director of the Center for Education Policy, a research organization in Washington. That means that instead of just talking about higher standards and tougher assessments, policymakers are actually putting those tools into use, Mr. Jennings said. "This is where people will face up to it or blow it away."

New Test on the Block

Michigan lawmakers created the High School Proficiency Test in 1992 to mollify business leaders who complained that high school diplomas were meaningless because graduates lacked basic skills.

The test, now in its second year, was given to juniors in February and covers 10th grade skills. On each section, students receive a score of proficient, novice, or not-yet-novice, and the results go on their transcripts. Gold seals for proficient scores go on diplomas.

"These are not basic-skills tests. These are difficult," said Diane Smolen, the supervisor of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program.

Twenty-one states require students to pass a basic-skills test to graduate. Michigan, New York, and Tennessee offer state-endorsed diplomas for students who surpass a designated score. New York, Ohio, and Tennessee also offer honors diplomas.

Although Michigan's proficiency test is not required for graduation, it is forcing schools to align their curricula with the state's voluntary standards.

"Expectations are being ratcheted up for students," said Jim Ballard, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. "We can't deny that this is doing what it set out to do."

Of the 92,000 students who took the 1996 test, only 34 percent were rated proficient in writing. The proportion deemed proficient in math was 47 percent; in science, 32 percent; and in reading, 40 percent.

One of the state's top performers in the exam's first year was the 7,500-student Birmingham district. Nine out of 10 graduates from the suburban Oakland County district go to college, and its students averaged a 65 percent proficient rate on the four tests last year.

So it came as quite a shock when parents of two-thirds of the 500 juniors in the district's two high schools requested waivers to excuse their children from February's test. Nearly 30 percent of the juniors at nearby Troy High School also opted out.

Most of the waivers came in at the last minute, after a local newspaper, The Eccentric, ran a story weighing the exam's pros and cons.

"We had heard some rumors that something might happen," Birmingham Superintendent John W. Hoeffler said. "Before you knew it, it was done."

Concern Spreads

There was no apparent organized test boycott. But the spark, some say, was students like Seaholm High School's Jonathan Salz.

He scored a perfect 36 on the ACT college-entrance exam and was accepted to the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But when word spread that Mr. Salz received a "novice" score on last year's writing proficiency test, his stumble alarmed parents. If it happened to him, how were their children going to do? And concerns arose over the test's credibility, especially the more subjective writing portion.

"You're telling me that he can't write well enough to be employed at a milling shop or as a keypunch operator, but he can write well enough to get into MIT?" said Jonathan's father, Jeff Salz, a custom cabinetmaker. "I don't think so."

Local parents insist that they support testing, but argue that this is the wrong test. They outlined their concerns in a Feb. 11 letter to the state schools chief, Arthur Ellis. Among their complaints were that:

  • Students who earn the not-yet-novice score are unfairly punished because private school students do not take the test.
  • Colleges and employers say they pay little attention to the test.
  • The lengthy test "intrudes" on class time.
  • Some test material has not been covered in classes.

What Next?

"Most of our kids are going to college, so they're really not concerned about what businesses are looking for," said Marnie Parrott, the president of the Seaholm Parent-Teacher-Student Association, whose daughter took the test.

But when many parents discovered that there was no record or punishment for opting out, the decision was easy. Birmingham school officials have asked the state for an immediate moratorium on the test until its flaws can be worked out.

But that may be wishful thinking. Gov. John Engler and Mr. Ellis are solidly behind the exam. "We are not going to back away from high standards," Mr. Ellis said.

Mr. Ellis is reviewing administrative changes in response to the parents. He said he will also lobby colleges and employers to take the exam seriously.

But state lawmakers who thought they were giving voters what they wanted with the tougher tests and curriculum are divided over its future.

Rep. Kirk A. Profit, a Democrat, has introduced a bill that would replace the state endorsement on diplomas with numerical scores on transcripts. And Republican Sen. Dan L. DeGrow's school accountability bill would raise pressure to take the test by counting waivers against district scores. Districts that tested poorly could be taken over by the state.

Cautionary Tale

Birmingham parents are surprised at the attention they've received, including a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal on March 28.

But it's not often that parents who usually follow the rules are so defiant. And the issue they picked--tougher standards and tests--is front and center these days among state government and business leaders.

People are also paying attention for the lesson to be learned: Parents can't be excluded from the process when new educational tools are in the works.

"The message of the Michigan story is, I don't believe that they did the proper amount of groundwork that is necessary," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Maryland board of education.

Mr. Ellis, the Michigan superintendent, concurs. "No one envisioned this kind of turmoil."

Maryland is scheduled to launch in 1999 a battery of new proficiency tests aligned with the state's mandatory standards. But the first two years will be no-risk trial runs. No decision has been made on whether passing the exam will become a requirement for graduation.

Mr. Cross noted that Maryland's universities, which helped draft the state's standards, will use the exam as a criterion for admission. "By tying this in to the university system, it has greater weight."

In the end, Mr. Jennings said, selling higher standards and the tests that go with them will require an ongoing public relations effort.

"You'd better talk to a lot of people about this," he said. "I'm optimistic that if people in power keep talking and if schools change to get kids ready, then it will work."

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