TOPICS > Education

Testing the Tests

January 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


(operatic singing with piano)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: 16-year-old Erin Sawyer is an accomplished soprano with an impressive 4.2 grade point average. Gretchen Kaiser, also a junior, is an outstanding athlete and another honor student. And their Saguoro High School in Scottsdale Arizona is one of the best in the state. In 1998, it was named a blue ribbon high school by the U.S. Department of education. So when Erin and Gretchen flunked the math portion of Arizona’s standards test last year, they were shocked, because as things stood then, they wouldn’t have been allowed to graduate from high school until they could pass it.

ERIN SAWYER: I was really disappointed, I was, because I missed it by, like, one point, I think. I’m actually, you know, I’m not even very sure what my exact score was, but it was just very difficult.

GRETCHEN KAISER: I opened it and looked at it and began to take it. I didn’t even know where to begin.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And you’re sitting there taking it, and you’ve already been told, if you don’t pass this, you’re not going to graduate.

ERIN SAWYER: That was so scary.

GRECHEN KAISER: That adds extra pressure, too.

ERIN SAWYER: Because they’re just… All the teachers are saying, “well, you have to take this, you have to… If you don’t pass this, you’re not going to graduate. You can only take this a certain number of times, and if you don’t pass it, you just don’t get your diploma.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Gretchen and Erin have lots of company. Across the state, 84% of Arizona’s high school sophomores failed the math test. Scores on the state’s writing exam were only marginally better. In recent years, testing has become a popular tool to see whether kids are actually learning the material contained in the new state curriculum standards. The exams are called high stakes tests because in states like Arizona, a student can’t graduate without passing them. But education officials in Arizona now admit the failure rate on the math test was high because many students hadn’t been taught the material necessary to perform well on the test.

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: These are basic, non- negotiables of what our kids need to know.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Arizona state superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan is a strong supporter of President Bush’s policies on standards and accountability.

TEACHER: So, who can tell me what a ratio is?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Still, her board made the math test easier after the high failure rate, and it postponed the date for having to pass it to graduate to 2004. But she is not apologetic about making it tough in the first place.

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: When I look at this, some people continue to look at it and say, “you know, you only had 16% of your students pass this math test the first time they took it.” I say to them, “yeah, that’s right, that’s true. But the first time we only had 10%.” So I’m working looking at about 3,500, 5,000 kids, depending on the level, that know this material this year that didn’t know it last year. And good for those teachers, good for them. You know, we are improving in Arizona.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Arizona is not alone in making adjustments after dramatically low test scores. At least one-third of the 23 states that have mandated high stakes tests are either scaling back or slowing their initial efforts. Among them are California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Delaware, Ohio, Wisconsin, Alaska, and Virginia. Chester Finn monitors school reform and testing nationally as director of the Thomas Fordham Foundation in Washington.

CHESTER FINN: Many states have squishy, vague, nebulous standards that are very hard to give guidance to teachers and others who want to actually know concretely what is it they’re supposed to be teaching. So standards are a problem. Tests are often a problem. In many states they are not aligned with standards, so you have a test of “a,” but standard that prescribes “b,” and they’re not in close synch with each other. But the big problem is that kids aren’t learning enough, and these tests are revealing that fact.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But critics are questioning the fairness of some of the tests. Dr. Bob Hess is an expert on testing who helped design the high stakes test in Arizona. He says it was never meant to be used as a way to keep kids from getting a diploma, and he is angry with the way it’s been used by state officials.

DR. ROBERT HESS: The test was not meant to be punitive. It was not to be regulatory. It was, by definition, a broad way of inferring how well the students were doing and how well the curriculum was getting processed by the student. In 1992, the state of Arizona’s legislature passed a statute that required the state board to develop and institute testing of grades three, five, and eight, and high school, and that the high school test would have graduation implications. It was legislated.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: We talked to teachers at Saguoro High School about the poor scores students there got on the state tests. Kim Margel teaches freshman math.

KIM MARGEL: I think it was too tough. They’re testing at a sophomore level when the topics were topics that would be presented at the junior and senior level. And so the students were being tested prior to the information, which is why your failure rate was so high.

TEACHER: So you can use a calculator if you want. Just go crossways on those.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Saguoro teacher Randy Bishop works with students who have learning and behavior problems, and he worries that tests will encourage his kids to give up on education altogether.

RANDY BISHOP: I’m against using an exit test when you use it as a criterion for graduation. And I think working with at-risk kids, I think you’re going to find many kids end up dropping out of school because they feel like they can’t pass that test. So I think it’s a problem. Every student that comes through this school doesn’t need to know how to factor a polynomial. We have students that come out of here that are going to be roofers and plumbers, and they’re going to be successful members of our society. They’re going to be good citizens.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Republican State Senator Ken Bennett chairs the Education Committee in the upper House. He’s been a leader of education reform movement in Arizona, and he disagrees with Bishop.

KEN BENNETT: It’s a focusing thing that appears punitive until you consider the alternative, and that is pass them through and then just let the world take their shots at them, and then they don’t have anybody to help. If we get them right now, then we’ve got instructors and principals and counselors and parents and all kinds of people ready and able to get in and help them catch up in order to make sure that when we present them to the rest of the world, they can at least read and write and compute.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But a number of parent organizations think there’s too much riding on one test. Mary Anne Bloom is head of Saguoro’s Parent-Teacher Organization.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Are people upset about this?

MARY ANNE BLOOM: Yes, I mean, I think so, and most of the people I talk to feel the same way– too stressful. I know we have to have some standard of measurement, but to put that down as… If you don’t graduate from high school, you’re dead in this society today. And to put that all on a test seems to me to be too much.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even Ajit Divakaruni, the only Saguoro student who aced the math test, doesn’t think his classmates should be judged on just one test.

AJIT DIVAKARUNI: I just think that there shouldn’t be one test in which will determine whether or not a kid graduates from high school or not. I think that it’s very difficult to cram four years of high school mathematics into a 60- minute test. I just think that testing can be useful in terms of diagnostic purposes, in terms of telling kids where they are and where they need to go, but I just don’t think there should be one, final, be-all, end-all exam.


ERIN SAWYER: It really is, because I am an honors student, you know what I mean? Like, I obviously know what I’m doing if I can still maintain that grade point average, you know, and do all… I just don’t test well.

GRETCHEN KAISER: Or exactly, what about, like, I always get so many nerves when it comes to tests, and I personally think I’m not a very good test taker. I’m not strong at all in that category. And to judge my high school career based on one test…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Superintendent Keegan has a warning for Erin and Gretchen.

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: I would say to the two young girls who have these fantastic, really fabulous grade averages, that if they’re headed into college or anywhere else, they’re in for a rude awakening. Arizona does not have a stellar reputation among colleges and for our kids being thoroughly prepared. Even our own colleges have– I think the number is almost up to 30% of remedial work coming in– and those are college-bound kids who from the get-go are trying to put themselves on college- prep track.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Senator Bennett says the state can’t keep postponing judgment day.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you want too much too fast?

KEN BENNETT: It will take forever if we continue to delay and postpone our expectations. I think students, even more than us adults, will rise to high expectations if we hold the line.

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: I think it is a fair accusation that those of us who are political leaders come and we say, you know, “we want this done. I want it done tomorrow. I want it done on my watch,” and you want to read that as I want to get credit for it, when, in fact, I think this is a very long program. I don’t think that we should just sit around and say, “you know, I know this takes a generation of children, and we should just start with prenatal vitamins and then next year we’ll do standards.” I think that’s crazy. I think we get right on it as fast as we can right now.

STUDENT: What are you guy’s finding out?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Whether Arizona’s test scores improve over the next few years will be watched closely by those who favor and oppose high stakes testing as more and more states press their efforts to reform public schools.