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Tests Measure Low-Level Skills

In the most comprehensive study of its kind yet conducted, researchers at Boston College have found evidence to confirm the widespread view that standardized and textbook tests emphasize low-level thinking and exert a profound, mostly negative, effect on classroom instruction.

The three-year, $1 million study, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, found that only a handful of the questions on major commercially available tests in mathematics and science, as well as on tests included in textbooks, measured the kinds of conceptual knowledge and problem-solving abilities reformers say should be integral to instruction in those fields.

And a survey of more than 2,200 teachers, along with site visits in six cities, confirmed that these tests influence instruction and that most of the effects are negative. This is particularly true in classrooms with large numbers of minority students.

George Madaus, head of the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy at Boston College and the study's director, says the research findings present a “depressing picture.”

“If this doesn't change,” he declares, “an inordinate amount of time, attention, and preparation will be given to the wrong domains in math and science, domains that are not reflecting the outcomes we want.”

Not surprisingly, the study drew an angry response from commercial publishers, who say they have been revamping their products to match the proposed reforms. “This study is worthless if it ignores an entire generation of books and tests that came out after 1991,” says Peter Jovanovich, president and chief executive officer of the Macmillan/ McGraw-Hill School Publishing Co. “Either the report is sloppy, or it is willfully wrong.”

The report notes that while policymakers have in recent years turned to tests to provide accountability and to drive instruction, there has been no comprehensive analysis of the effects of such policies. The NSF launched the new study in 1989 to provide such an examination.

Among other things, the study found that the overwhelming majority of test items, particularly in math, measured low-level skills and knowledge. In math, 95 percent of the items on both types of tests sampled recall of information, computation, and the use of formulas and algorithms in routine problems, while only 5 percent measured higher-level skills.

In science, roughly 75 percent of the items on the standardized tests, and 90 percent of those in the textbook tests, tested students' recall of facts and routine applications. Moreover, the study found, 92 percent of the standardized-test items and 95 percent of those in textbook tests did not demand knowledge of scientific procedures. “This lack of emphasis on procedural knowledge,” the report states, “conflicts with the current emphasis on hands-on, real-world science.”

Copies of the summary documents and technical reports related to the study, The Influence of Testing on Teaching Math and Science in Grades 4-12, are available from the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy, 323 Campion Hall, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167.

Study Challenges Claims For Choice

School choice has emerged in recent years as one of the most vigorously discussed and aggressively pursued education innovations in the country. Thirteen states and many more school districts have adopted some kind of choice plan in the past five years.

But a new report by Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, argues that the claims about the benefits of school choice “greatly outdistance the evidence, thus far.” The report praises some districtwide choice programs but argues that statewide plans have failed to demonstrate any educational impact and could increase the disparities among districts. Moreover, Boyer says, most public school parents have little desire for such a system.

The 118-page report, School Choice, is based on a year-long study. Among other results, it found that 70 percent of parents with children in public school say there is no other public or private school to which they currently want to send their children. In states where school choice has been adopted, it found, fewer than 2 percent of eligible parents participate in the programs. And parents who transfer their children to another school do so mostly for nonacademic reasons.

The report includes the results of a survey of more than 1,000 members of the general public. On one school choice question, 82 percent of the respondents said the best way to improve public education is to strengthen all neighborhood schools by giving them the resources needed to achieve excellence; only 15 percent believe the best way to improve schools is by letting them compete for students. The findings seem to counter those of a Gallup Poll released this past fall by the National Catholic Educational Association. That survey found that seven out of 10 people responding would support a government-funded voucher system that enabled parents to send their children to public, private, or parochial schools.

Opinion polls about choice are notoriously tricky, with respondents' answers varying depending on how the questions are worded. Boyer argues that previous surveys have left the tradeoffs involved in choice plans “out of the equation” and thus have overstated the level of support.

School choice advocates quickly blasted Boyer's widely publicized study, arguing that his methods and data were flawed and that the report exhibits a distinct anti-choice bias. “A real smear job” is how Terry Moe, coauthor of a 1990 book that helped energize the choice movement, describes the report. “I think it's grossly unfair and basically an effort to forward their own agenda,” Moe says.

And Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, claims he found “64 significant misstatements of fact or distortions in one chapter.”

But Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that recently sponsored a symposium on choice, says the report “confirms what most people who've studied the issue have observed. And that is that there's no reason to believe that choice in itself will be a force for improving schools.”

Boyer defends his report as a balanced study of the pros and cons of the choice movement to date. “This is a report that praises choice when the conditions are right,” he says. “It's not an antichoice report. We did our very best to discover evidence from all the sources that we knew and thought were reliable.”

Copies of the report are available for $8 each, plus postage, from California/Princeton Fulfillment Services, 1445 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, NJ 08618; (609) 883-1759 or (800) 777-4726.

A Gifted Teacher Falls From Grace

Eliot Wigginton, teacher extraordinaire and founder of the Foxfire language arts program, pleaded guilty in November to a charge of child molestation; he was sentenced to a year in jail.

Wigginton was indicted in September after a 4th grade boy from the Athens, Ga., public schools alleged that the educator had undressed him and fondled him during an overnight trip to a Foxfire event last May. Early in October, in the wake of further allegations that he had molested at least two dozen other students between 1967 and 1988, the nationally known educator and author resigned his teaching post at the University of Georgia in Athens. He had already resigned his position as chairman of the board of directors of the Foxfire Fund, the nonprofit corporation that administers Foxfire's educational and publishing activities.

In a formal statement, James Hasson Jr., the new chairman of the fund, said Wigginton's actions “require his total separation” from the future work of Foxfire. “All of us connected with Foxfire are shocked and profoundly saddened by this unexpected development,” the statement said. “It is exceptionally difficult for us to reconcile the visible accomplishments of Mr. Wigginton in the classroom with the hidden wrongdoing he has now admitted. Our hearts go out to all of those who have been affected by this tragedy.”

Rabun County Superior Court Judge Robert Struble sentenced the former national teacher of the year to 20 years in jail, with one to serve and the rest on probation. He also ordered Wigginton to pay a $10,000 fine, to undergo mental-health treatment, and to provide such treatment for the boy. The judge also barred him from teaching or having contact with children under age 18 for the next 20 years.

Building Support For School Reform

In November, a national coalition of business and education organizations launched a major public service advertising campaign designed to promote grassroots interest and participation in school reform.

Developers of the campaign hope it will match the effectiveness of some of the nation's most memorable public service advertising efforts, such as the United Negro College Fund's ads that feature the tag line “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” In fact, the same advertising agency that developed that campaign, Young & Rubicam of New York, did the creative work for the new effort.

The advertising campaign, which centers on the phrase “Keep the Promise,” will be distributed by the Advertising Council on behalf of the Education Excellence Partnership, a joint effort of the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Education Department, the National Alliance of Business, the National Governors' Association, and the American Federation of Teachers.

The “Keep the Promise” theme, which was chosen after extensive research with focus groups, is intended to remind audiences of the promise and potential of every child and the nation's commitment to provide each child with an education.

One 60-second television ad focuses on the young child who was rescued from an abandoned well in Midland, Texas, in 1987. “No country comes to the aid of a child the way we do,” the ad says. “Imagine if the same effort that went into saving that little child in Texas went into keeping the promise that every child in America gets the best education.”

The partnership has pledged $5 million for the campaign over five years. Advertising time and space will be donated, but the money is needed to cover the costs of production and duplication of the ads and of a toll-free telephone line for viewers and readers to call to get more information on school reform. Following the first airing of the ad in mid-November, 750 viewers called in for additional information.

“We hope this campaign will be pivotal in building the consensus for change,” says Christopher Cross, executive director of the education initiative of the Business Roundtable, an organization made up of more than 200 chief executive officers of the nation's largest corporations. “We see this as having several phases. The first phase is aimed much more heavily at raising awareness. We are trying to make people better educated on the issue and aware of school as something of concern for all communities. In later stages, our emphasis will be on commitment and involvement—getting people involved in school mentoring or volunteering.”

Standard-Setters Take On English

In 1990, President Bush and the nation's governors called for the development of world-class standards in five academic subjects: mathematics, science, English, history, and geography.

Mathematics standards, developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, are already being used in 40 states. And efforts, supported by the U.S. Education Department and other federal agencies, are under way to develop standards in science, history, and geography.

Now, completing the list of core subject areas, the Education Department has awarded a $360,542 grant to support the creation of English standards by 1994. The one-year grant was given to a consortium made up of the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois at Champaign. The groups will work together to develop standards for what all precollegiate students should know and be able to do in English—a subject that encompasses reading, composition, oral communication, and literature.

The field, however, is among the most contentious in the school curriculum, and representatives of the groups involved in the process acknowledge that their task will not be easy. “It's not accidental that English is last,” says Diane Ravitch, the department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement. “It's clearly going to be the most difficult.”

One of the biggest issues the group will face centers on the debate now raging over the best way to teach young children to read. Some educators favor a “whole language” approach that emphasizes the use of literature; others stress the teaching of phonics. Debate is also expected over how the literary canon should be addressed. Many critics believe that the de facto literary canon now taught in schools is dominated by the works of “dead white males” and excludes the voices of women and minorities.

A key to resolving such issues will be the structure of the standards themselves and the adopting process. Those involved in the project say the standards will be flexible and “sensitive and responsive” to the needs of the local communities where they are taught.

A 25-member governing board—made up of English and reading professionals, other educators, business representatives, communications professionals, and members of the general public—will oversee the effort. Smaller task forces, whose members represent diverse perspectives within literature, writing, reading, and oral communication, will draft the standards.

Retention Revisited

In 1985, the Philadelphia public schools attracted national attention when Constance Clayton, the district's superintendent, pushed through a tough retention policy designed to rid the district of social promotions.

The policy change was needed, district officials argued at the time, because teachers had no clear direction on what to do with failing students. As a result, pupils were often promoted regardless of their level of academic achievement. Under the tougher policy, students were retained if they did not meet specific districtwide standards for achievement.

In November, the Philadelphia school board voted to soften that strict promotion policy so that fewer students will be forced to repeat a grade. “We have more and more children coming to school with various levels of deprivation,” says Rita Altman, a district administrator. “And we really want to give every child an opportunity to succeed.”

The move away from social promotion in 1985 had an almost immediate effect on the system. In the first year of the new policy, 22 percent of students in grades 1 through 8 were held back. In more recent years, that figure has dropped to about 9 percent.

Clayton had promised to review the policy after five years. And a task force appointed in 1990 to carry out that job concluded that, although the retention rates had declined significantly, too many children were still suffering from the stigma of staying back. Many of those students, the task force found, were young children who had come into the system with little or no experience in kindergarten—either because full-day kindergarten programs were not available in their overcrowded neighborhood schools or because parents did not send their children to them.

The panel also cited a number of national studies suggesting that students who are retained in grade are more likely to drop out of school later and to develop low self-esteem.

The board now hopes to move the school system to ungraded elementary school classrooms, in which students of differing ages could progress at their individual rates of development and remain with the same teacher over several years. In the meantime, the school district has barred schools from retaining 1st graders and has limited the number of years a student can be held back between grades 2 and 8 to one.

Sexual Misconduct

A federal appeals court has ruled that public school administrators have a duty to protect students from sexual misconduct by school employees and that they can be sued when they fail to stop abuse they knew about or should have known about. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said the superintendent and a principal in the Taylor (Texas) Independent School District must stand trial in a civil rights suit stemming from the alleged sexual abuse of a 15-year-old girl by a high school teacher. The two administrators had appealed a U.S. District Court judge's refusal to dismiss them from the suit, which also includes the teacher as a defendant.

An Angry Demand

The mother of a 10-year-old boy who claims her son made it to 5th grade in the Santa Ana, Calif., schools without being able to read or write has filed a lawsuit in state court seeking to close down his elementary school. In the suit, Lourdes Gutierrez charged that teachers at Glenn Martin Elementary School failed to fulfill their obligation to teach her son, Roberto; she alleged that Roberto's homework was never looked at or graded. Gutierrez asked the court to close the school and to give the money used to operate it to students in the form of education vouchers to pay for private school education. District officials said it is highly unlikely that a student who cannot read or write would be promoted to the 5th grade without extensive help and supervision.

A Terrible Lesson

An Eau Claire, Wis., principal has resigned and three assistant principals have been reprimanded for falsifying the returns in a high school homecoming-queen election. The four administrators altered a number of ballots in the election to deny April Schuldt, a pregnant senior at Memorial High School, the title and then misrepresented their actions, according to Lee Hansen, the local superintendent of schools. "They taught the student body at Memorial a terrible lesson in civic responsibility," Hansen says of the four school officials.

Troubled Youth

Nearly one in 14 high school students said they attempted suicide within a recent 12-month period, researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Twenty-nine percent of the adolescents polled said they thought about suicide during that period, and 19 percent "made a specific plan to kill themselves." Seven percent said they actually attempted suicide, and, for 2 percent, that attempt required medical attention. The report is based on the CDC's ongoing Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which questioned a representative sample of 12,000 9th to 12th graders at schools in 23 states and 10 metropolitan areas.


A new study reveals that school board members agree with many of the harsh judgments that have been leveled against them in recent years by a growing chorus of critics. The study, conducted by the Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, asked members serving on nearly 300 school boards in 16 states to grade their performance. In a number of key governance areas—including their ability to provide leadership and policy oversight, their planning and goal setting, and their commitment to assessing and improving their own performance—the board members gave themselves failing or barely passing grades. They also said they involve themselves too much in the day-to-day management of schools and have weak procedures for handling conflicts with their superintendents. The members gave themselves high marks, however, for their ability to make decisions and said they are "somewhat effective" overall.

Vol. 04, Issue 04, Pages 8-9

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