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The Ill Effects of High-Stakes Student Testing

A new federally funded study offers statistical evidence for what many educators have long suspected: that some “high stakes” student testing pressures schools to either retain low-achieving students in grade or put them in special education programs.

Researchers at the State University of New York at Albany studied 12 elementary schools in New York over a decade. They found that the number of students identified as disabled increased in each school after the state began using “report cards” to disclose to the public individual schools’ scores on a statewide 3rd grade reading test. The study also revealed that students were increasingly retained in the earlier grades or placed in transitional programs designed to give low-achieving kindergartners an extra year to mature.

Such practices, according to the researchers, effectively removed large numbers of students from the assessment stream or delayed their participation in the tests. If the scores of many of those students had been included in the school report cards along with those of other pupils their age, the researchers calculated, they would have lowered the schools’ reading-achievement scores and wiped out most of the gains reported by those schools.

“It appears unlikely that significantly increasing the incidence of early grade retention and special education enrollments were intended effects of the various educational reform initiatives undertaken in New York state,” write the study’s authors, Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen. “Yet these are the undeniable outcomes of this sample of schools.”

As early as 1988, the U.S. Education Department, in its annual report to Congress on special education, questioned whether the rising special education enrollments occurring throughout the 1980s might be linked to state initiatives that raised academic standards and instituted high-stakes testing programs.

“There have been a lot of expressions of opinion on that point, but this new study is the first hard data I’ve seen showing what’s actually happening to kids,” says James Ysseldyke, director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota. “Any time you hold districts accountable in a comparative sense, you can expect there’s a big incentive to keep kids who people think are going to do poorly out of the picture.”

According to a 1990 study, 47 states require schools to assess students at some point. And 39 of those states, including New York, mandate the use of state-developed, -selected, or -approved tests to carry out the assessments. There is widespread variation, however, in the degree to which disabled students’ scores are included in publicly disclosed test results.

New York has had a statewide pupil-evaluation program in place since 1965. But in 1984, as part of a far-reaching curriculum reform effort, the state began issuing report cards on student achievement by school and district. The state education department also began compiling and publishing lists of the “worst schools” in the state, based on scores from the statewide testing program. Disabled students are permitted to take the tests, but their scores are not included in the accountability profiles issued by the state.

Teachers of the World Unite

Teachers and other education employees from more than 120 nations met in Stockholm at the end of January to create a worldwide organization that will advocate quality education and free teachers’ unions.

The new organization, Education International, was formed by merging the International Federation of Free Teachers Unions and the World Confederation of Organizations in the Teaching Profession. The American Federation of Teachers had been affiliated with the international federation, whose primary emphasis was free trade unionism, while the National Education Association had been affiliated with the confederation, which stressed professional issues.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, the NEA’s immediate past president, will be the first president of the new union. In Stockholm, Futrell pledged that the group will work to “repel the frontal assaults that have been leveled against teacher trade unions.”

The new organization, which will be headquartered in Brussels, brings together 240 national educator unions and professional associations, representing more than 20 million school, college, and university faculty and staff members.

Keith Geiger, president of the NEA, will sit on the organization’s executive board, as will AFT President Albert Shanker. Spokesmen for the two American unions say the international merger was unrelated to any possible merger of the NEA and AFT.

Court Declines To Weigh Schools’ Duty To Protect

The U.S. Supreme Court in January refused to rule on the issue of whether the Constitution imposes a duty on public school officials to protect students from such harms as sexual assaults by teachers or other pupils.

Specifically, the court declined to review lower-court rulings in two separate cases that considered whether state compulsory education laws created a special legal relationship requiring schools to protect students from harm.

In a case from Pennsylvania, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had ruled that school officials were not liable for failing to protect two female students from alleged sexual assaults by male students at a vocational school. The appellate court upheld the dismissal of the female students’ lawsuit.

But a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reached the opposite conclusion in a Texas case involving the alleged sexual abuse of a female student by a male teacher. Under the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment, the panel held, school administrators “have a duty to protect schoolchildren from hazards which the school officials know or should know.” The court reinstated the girl’s lawsuit and ordered a trial.

School administrators have expressed fear that the ruling in the Texas case could lead to more lawsuits against districts and expose them to costly damage awards in cases involving not only sexual assaults but also accidental deaths and gang-related violence involving students.

Given the fact that there appears to be a conflict among federal appeals courts on the central question of whether compulsory education laws create a special “custodial” relationship between schools and students, some legal experts had expected the High Court to agree to review at least one of the cases dealing with the duty-to-protect issue.

But the court declined to review the two cases without comment, as is its practice. Although the Supreme Court is often eager to settle conflicting federal appeals-court decisions, observers point out that it will often let some issues percolate in the lower courts. Also, the justices may reject some cases that otherwise meet their standards for review because of the perceived lack of a “clean” factual record.

Suit Challenges Teacher Test

A second legal challenge has been leveled against the test that California uses to screen applicants for teaching credentials.

In a class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, an African-American teacher argues that the California Basic Educational Skills Test is unconstitutional because it discriminates against minorities and is not relevant to the jobs for which candidates are being screened. Fifteen teachers and several groups representing minority educators filed a similar action last fall in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Both lawsuits note that members of minority groups fail the CBEST at a disproportionately high rate. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedents, employment tests that have a racially disproportionate impact are permissible only if they are valid and were not adopted with discriminatory intent.

In the most recently filed suit, Venetta Greene alleges that she was unfairly denied a job as an English teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1984 because she failed the mathematics section of the CBEST. Although she passed the section a year later and has been employed since then, Greene is seeking compensatory damages for wages lost during her year of unemployment and is also asking the court to bar the state from using the exam.

“The test is not job-related; therefore it should not be used as a qualifier to get a teaching credential or to determine employment in the public schools system,” says Leo Terrell, the teacher’s lawyer. The math section of the exam, he argues, has “not a thing to do with her competency” as an English teacher. “If Albert Einstein did not know who was the 14th president of the United States, would we preclude him from teaching chemistry?”

Since the CBEST was implemented in 1983, 80 percent of whites have passed it, compared with 59 percent of Asian Americans, 51 percent of Hispanics, and 35 percent of African Americans, according to Green’s suit.

Officials of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing still defend the exam. “The fact of the matter is that the legislature did not intend this test to measure teaching ability,” says David Wright, director of the commission’s professional-services division. “The purpose of the original law was to assess more basic academic skills that we assume teachers acquire before they begin pedagogy studies and their supervised teaching in the schools.” Twenty-one states currently require prospective teachers to pass a general-skills test.

GAO Criticizes Pension Plans

In a report released earlier this year, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, warned that there are significant weaknesses in the funding of state- and local-government pension plans, including those for teachers.

Pension officials quickly attacked the study, calling it unnecessarily alarmist.

The report was released in the form of a letter to just-retired Rep. Edward Roybal, D-Calif., who had requested the study. It cautioned that some state and local governments have “frequently” contributed less to pension plans than the “actuarially required amounts.” Moreover, it charged that in some instances actuarial assumptions have been changed to lower the required contributions to the plans.

But the GAO investigators said they were unable to obtain “sufficiently detailed and verifiable information” about Roybal’s concern that state or local governments had removed funds from their pension plans to pay operating expenses. Roybal was chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging until his retirement in January.

The GAO said an analysis of a 1991 survey of retirement systems in 47 states and Puerto Rico showed most plans were underfunded—meaning that they did not have enough value in their assets to fully cover their pension liabilities.

But Cynthia Moore, the Washington counsel to the National Council on Teacher Retirement, asserts that the GAO report “gave a very misleading impression of the health of the teacher retirement system.”

“I think the GAO is stoking the fires unfairly and worrying retirees unnecessarily,” Moore says. The plans can meet current obligations, she says, and state and local governments “aren’t going to go out of business.”

“Even if they’re not 100 percent funded, that’s not a sign of any danger,” Moore adds, noting that the survey average of 85 percent of funded liabilities was a safe level.

Michael Kahn, manager of the education-finance and economics unit at the National Education Association, disagrees. An 85 percent funding average, he says, is “not an acceptable level.” More importantly, Kahn contends, the practice of a state or local government’s skipping its pension-plan contribution is especially worrisome and has occurred more often in recent years because of the recession and states’ fiscal woes.

The GAO report said it is important for state and local governments to fully fund pensions because a large group of government employees will retire within the next 20 years. To meet those obligations, it warned, some states may have to resort to increasing the contribution of employees or raising taxes.

Surprise: Good News From NAEP

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, generally the purveyor of gloomy reports on U.S. students’ academic abilities, released a bit of surprisingly upbeat news in January: Between 1990 and 1992, student performance in mathematics significantly improved.

A preliminary report on the results of the 1992 assessment, which was based on a test administered to 26,000 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, shows that average math performance in all grades rose by about five points on a 500-point scale during that period. At the same time, the proportion of students demonstrating a “proficient” level of achievement increased by five percentage points.

More specifically, the report found that the proportion of 4th graders reaching at least the “basic” level—those demonstrating “some evidence of understanding” math concepts and procedures—rose from 54 percent to 61 percent, while the proportion attaining the “proficient” level— those showing they could “consistently apply integrated procedural knowledge”—grew from 13 percent to 18 percent. Two percent of the 4th graders, the same proportion as in 1990, reached the “advanced” level.

Among 8th graders, 63 percent attained the basic level or above, 25 percent reached the proficient level, and 4 percent performed at the advanced level, while 64 percent of the 12th graders were at the basic level or above, 16 percent at the proficient level, and 2 percent at the advanced level.

Only 8th graders from disadvantaged urban areas showed a decline in math performance between 1990 and 1992.

“This is a big jump in math scores,” then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said. “This is not like a one-point increase in SAT scores.” The NAEP report was released just before Alexander and the Bush administration left office.

Alexander attributed the increase to the growing use of the standards for math instruction adopted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, although others cautioned that NAEP is unable to pinpoint the cause of changes in performance.

While most observers hailed the increases, some pointed out that the report also contained cause for concern. Despite the gains, they noted, about 40 percent of those tested failed to attain even the “basic” level, and few students demonstrated “proficient” achievement. The drop in scores among disadvantaged urban students was also troubling. “The nation is in danger of losing the gap-closing progress disadvantaged students have been making in recent years,” said Cynthia Brown, acting executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

A more detailed report, which will include background data as well as state-by-state results, is scheduled for release this month.

Standard-Setters Begin Work On Foreign Languages

The list of academic subjects getting the world-class-standards treatment grew by one in early January, when plans were unveiled to tackle the foreign languages.

The eighth—and last—standards-setting project funded by the Bush administration, the new effort will by 1996 specify what students in kindergarten through 12th grade should know and be able to do in a second language.

The project, slated to receive $211,494 this year, is being funded by the Education Department and the National Endowment for the Humanities. “What this effort does,” said Diane Ravitch, the department’s former assistant secretary for the office of educational research and improvement, “is to underscore the message of the importance for students to have a second language.”

Foreign languages are not universally taught in schools in this country. But interest in the subject has increased in recent years amid a growing recognition that the United States is becoming increasingly diverse and that nations are becoming globally interdependent.

Despite such interest, the subject was not included in the national education goals set in 1990 by President Bush and the nation’s governors. And foreign language educators have long contended that, by focusing on only five subject areas—English, geography, history, mathematics, and science—the goals could make it easy for schools that already ignore foreign languages to continue doing so.

Over the last year, however, the Education Department has sought to broaden national standards-setting efforts by funding projects in some core subjects not specifically mentioned in the goals, such as the arts, civics, and now foreign languages.The new grant will go to a consortium of associations led by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a group based in Yonkers, N.Y.

Vol. 04, Issue 06, Pages 10-12

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