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Ashley Stubbs seems like a model student. She has a 4.2 grade point average, plays on the school golf team, tutors elementary students, and is a member of the Mayor's Youth Council.
Getting into college shouldn't be too hard, right? Wrong. In a few weeks she'll face a statewide standardized math and English test. If she doesn't pass the test, she won't graduate.
Ashley lives in Arizona, one of 24 states that give so-called "high stakes" tests to high school students.
"I'm a little scared," she said. "I've talked to intelligent people who didn't pass, and that makes me nervous." And she might have a good reason --about 84 percent of Arizona's sophomores failed the math portion of the test the first year it was administered.
The idea behind these sorts of tests is to monitor and regulate students' progress. Many teachers and parents across the country are concerned that students were passing along from grade to grade and eventually graduating without really absorbing knowledge or developing essential academic skills.
Many colleges have to offer remedial classes because freshmen don't have the writing skills to survive higher education. The only way to find out what students really know, some educators say, is to give them a test.
But the credibility and effectiveness of high-stakes tests have come under heavy fire from teachers, students, and parents who say the tests are too hard or concentrate on the wrong subjects. Nine of the 24 states that have high-stakes testing are now re-examining their approach.
A nationwide push to test
The nationwide push for high-stakes tests follows "success stories" in states such as California and Florida, where a new push to teach to state standards has led to better test scores.
In Los Angeles, teachers who achieve "spectacular progress" with their students can earn bonuses. Teachers working in the inner city can receive up to $25,000 if their students' test scores improve enough.
In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush has instituted a policy that takes away money from schools where students consistently score poorly on state tests. Schools fearing the withdrawal of funding pushed harder to improve test scores.
President Bush is also pushing for more state-level testing. Students in grades 3 through 8 would be tested each year in reading and math under his education plan. Each state would be able to choose its own test.
Adjusting the test
A number of states, including Arizona, have revised and rewritten their tests considerably. Supporters of the Arizona test (known as the AIMS test) are quick to point out that growing pains should be expected in the first few years of the testing.
"Rewriting tests is a fairly common thing," said math teacher Kathy Goodrich. "It takes a while to get material across."
Arizona state superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan points out that the school board made the math test easier after the high failure rate, and it will still graduate students who fail the test until 2004, when all students who fail will be kept behind.
More than one chance
Many people in Arizona say the test is fair because students have five chances to pass the test --once as a sophomore, and two times their junior and senior years. And sophomores who fail one or both portions of the AIMS test, can sign up for an extra tutorial class to help them prepare for their next try.
But these provisions can cause their own problems. At Ashley's school, Saguaro, the tutorial class counts as elective units. As a result, students end up giving up music or drama in order to prepare for the AIMS.
"We administrate so many assessments that we are losing instruction time," said Saguaro English teacher Julie Berkel. "Not that assessment isn't worthwhile, but we have so many."
Saguaro has three separate assessment tests that they give throughout the year. To many teachers, more testing means they teach to the test and don't have time for more creative assignments.
Outside the tests
Some teachers worry that putting too much pressure on test scores might harm the subjects that aren't tested, like history and music. Students are quick to point out that while they may not be the best math or English student, that should not detract from the other skills and abilities that they possess.
"It's awful to think that my friend, who's a talented musician, may not graduate because he's not strong in math," Ashley said.
But that's an argument Superintendent Keegan doesn't accept. She calls the content of the tests "basic, non-negotiables of what our kids need to know."
The goals of education
Still, many teachers are concerned about students who are teetering on the edge of failure. The biggest fear is that these kids will become discouraged by the test and drop out of high school all together.
"I though that the goal of education was to encourage, not to discourage", says math teacher Elena Samfilippo. "Some kids think that if they can't pass the AIMS, what's the point of going to school at all?"
Administrator Ken Moore suggests alternatives for borderline students. There should be more than one way to graduate, says Moore. "If they go to school and work hard, there should be a way to reward and validate these students."
What happens in Arizona 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 improve public schools.
What do you think? How do you think your school should assess your progress?
-Contributed by Matt Howell
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