School Climate & Safety

States’ Test-Taking Schedules Feel Impact of Terrorism

By Debra Viadero — September 26, 2001 5 min read
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As the nation’s schools resumed their routines after the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history, state education officials in a handful of states debated whether getting back to normal should include forging ahead with state-mandated tests.

In Connecticut, for example, Commissioner of Education Theodore S. Sergi delayed last week’s scheduled administration of the Connecticut Mastery Tests and asked district administrators to put tens of thousands of copies of the tests under lock and key until October. State-mandated testing went on as scheduled this month, however, in two other states—Indiana and Utah—where a combined total of more than 490,000 students sat for exams.

Meanwhile, the events of Sept. 11 temporarily cast Alabama’s state assessment program into disarray for another reason. Because the blank tests were scheduled to be delivered at National Guard armories around the state that week, testing officials scrambled to line up new drop-off sites in case the armories were enlisted for the national emergency. Tests in that state, however, weren’t scheduled to begin until this week, and were expected to proceed as planned.

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Most states assess students in the spring, months into the academic year. The few that conduct tests in the fall do so either to help them measure learning gains from fall to spring or to spread out the burden on schools that have to administer multiple standardized tests.

Toll on Scores?

This month, the challenge for those states was figuring out whether the emotional impact from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon might also take a toll on students’ test scores.

“We decided to allow schools, students, and teachers time to put this behind them and come to some degree of normalcy first,” said Thomas W. Murphy, a spokesman for the Connecticut education department. He said the events hit Connecticut particularly hard because many parents in its southernmost counties commute to work in New York City, where more than 6,000 lives were estimated to be lost after a pair of hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center.

More than 120,000 Connecticut students in grades 4, 6, and 8 were scheduled to take tests over a two-week period beginning Sept. 17. Mr. Sergi told school districts on Sept. 14 that he was moving the testing window to a “more settled time,” from Oct. 3-19. All students, however, must take the writing exam on Oct. 4.

Although not intended as a high-stakes assessment, real estate agents and newspapers in Connecticut use the test results to rank schools, according to Mr. Murphy. Scores on the tests also determine the size of state grants that districts get each year and identify students for remediation.

But the academic stakes to students were higher in Indiana, where state officials went ahead with testing that began in many districts the day of the attacks. Over the course of that week, an estimated 350,000 students took the tests, which are given in grades 3, 6, and 8, and in high school starting in 10th grade.

Passing the 10th grade exams is required for graduation in Indiana, and students get five chances to take them during their high school years. Districts were scheduled to administer those three-day tests statewide from the morning of Sept. 11 through Sept. 13.

State officials made some concessions, however, to the catastrophe gripping the rest of the nation. They decided to allow high school students who do poorly on the tests this time around to take them again in the spring, rather than wait until next year. They also promised to scrutinize the test results for signs that the scores were depressed.

“The tests gave schools focus and direction for this tragic time,” said Mary Tiede Wilhelmus, a spokeswoman for the Indiana education department. “Most schools had already started testing, and they did not want to stop.”

Questions Arise

Some local school officials voiced concerns about the decision to press on despite the crisis.

“I’m sure it will affect test scores,” said John Henderson, a member of the school board of the Frankton-Lapel school district in central Indiana. “I’m sure kids were thinking about it, and they probably were worried, and their scores will probably be lower.”

In the end, most districts chose to continue testing. One exception was the Greater Clark County public schools, just across the Mississippi River from Louisville, Ky., where school officials suspended tests Sept. 12 so that students could discuss the week’s events in class.

Yet principals in some other districts that forged ahead said students seemed focused.

“I think the kids did the best job they possibly could under the circumstances,” said Ken A. Brist, the principal of Valparaiso High School in Valparaiso, Ind., about 50 miles southwest of Chicago. Students in his school had completed the first day of testing before word leaked out about the terrorist attacks.

Testing in Utah began the same week, but only for students attending year-round schools, according to Barbara Lawrence, the evaluation and assessment coordinator for that state’s education department. For most schools across the state, however, testing began on time last week.

Utah schools have three weeks in all to complete the tests, which are taken by some 140,000 students in grades 3, 6, and 8. Ms. Lawrence said the tests help give the state an idea of how it stacks up against others using the same nationally standardized test.

Peter A. Spevak, the director of the Center for Applied Motivation, a private, for-profit group in Rockville, Md., that addresses motivational issues, said tests given under such circumstances might still yield valid readings of student learning if educators made “calming, supportive comments’’ so that students could put the events in the backs of their minds at exam time.

But Frederic J. Medway, a psychology professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, took a less sanguine view. “As psychological researchers, we’ve never encountered this situation,” he noted. “But if I was being asked to bet, I would bet a situation like this would hurt kids’ test performance.”

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