Student Failure Causes
States to Retool Testing
By JACQUES STEINBERG
Ariz. Tammy Ho is not used to
daughter of two engineers, she is ranked 21st in the 819-member junior class at
Dobson High School, where nearly everyone goes on to college.
Tammy was jarred when she failed the state's new high school mathematics exam,
which all 10th graders took last spring with the understanding that they would
need to pass it at some point before they could graduate.
had plenty of company: 70 percent of the sophomores at her school, in this
middle-class suburb of Phoenix, also failed.
Statewide, the failure rate was 84 percent.
Tammy, an aspiring doctor, put it, "I don't believe there's any correlation
between that test and what I do in class."
State of Arizona now, reluctantly, agrees.
by two straight years of widespread failure (88 percent of the sophomores failed
the math test the previous spring, in a pilot run), state education officials
have concluded that the test is too hard and have absolved any class graduating
before 2004, at the earliest, of having to pass it.
retrenching on that test, and on a writing exam where scores were only
marginally better, Arizona, too, has company: nearly a third of the 23 other
states that have drafted high- stakes graduation exams in recent years are
scaling back or slowing their initial efforts. They are California, Maryland,
Massachusetts, Delaware, Ohio, Wisconsin and Alaska.
by scores that sometimes mirror Arizona's, or unnerved by how the Arizona
results appear from afar, these states have winnowed material to be tested,
lowered passing grades or delayed the effective dates of those exams until as
late as 2007, when many of the lawmakers responsible will be out of office.
in a push-and-pull that is not unusual in education politics, the states are
expecting George W. Bush to ask Congress to fulfill a high- profile campaign
promise: to require that every student in the third through eighth grades be
assessed annually in mathematics and reading, on tests that each state would
design and score.
the superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, Lisa Graham Keegan, who has
led the state's testing effort, is said to be among the leading candidates for
Mr. Bush's secretary of education.
Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open
Testing, an organization that has been critical of exit tests as a criterion for
promotion or graduation, said: "The posturing about education reform is
always the easy part, particularly if you have magic-bullet solutions like, `If
we raise the bar, kids will jump over it.' But I think we're at one of those
tipping points where some politicians are stepping back from the brink."
began erecting gates through which all graduates must pass in response to
parents and business leaders, who regularly express frustration with how little
students know and can do. Opinion surveys often find widespread support for high
standards and for some mechanism that holds students to them.
the experiences of Arizona and other states have proved sobering for those who
would rely almost exclusively on the writing and scoring of new tests to assuage
voters' concerns about education.
those states watching, and being watched, is New York, where last year's seniors
were the first required to pass a Regents exam in English. Ninety-seven percent
did so, but only after the State Board of Regents temporarily lowered the
passing grade to 55, from 65. The passing grade in English, and on a math test
required starting this year, will be raised to 65 in 2004.
Alaska last spring, two of every three high school sophomores failed a new state
math test that they will ultimately have to pass to graduate. Armed with
estimates that at least one-third of that class would still fail the test even
after several tries in subsequent grades, the State Board of Education asked the
Legislature on Dec. 9 to put off the requirement until the class of 2006.
is holding to its schedule of imposing graduation exams in math and English on
the class of 2004. But on Dec. 7, the State Board of Education approved a
recommendation from Gov. Gray Davis to cut the three-and-a-half-hour math exam
by as much as an hour, and to delete questions on the most advanced concepts in
algebra, like quadratic equations and functions. "Based on field tests, the
general population of current California students did not do well in items on
those topics," said Robert Anderson, the California official overseeing the
in Maryland, where high school exams have been under discussion since 1992,
state officials have put off five new exams in English, algebra, geometry,
government and biology from the class of 2005 to the class of 2007.
saw a lot of potential train wrecks down the road in states where people set
very high standards and didn't put in the support system to help schools get
there," said Ronald Peiffer, a state education spokesman.
of those states, he said, was Arizona.
only did Arizona education officials put material on the 10th-grade math exam,
including some calculus and trigonometry, that most students would not be taught
until 12th grade, if ever, they also provided districts no extra money to
prepare for the test and by most accounts did not do enough to enlist the
support of teachers and principals.
was wrong," Ms. Keegan, a speech pathologist first elected superintendent
of public instruction in 1994, said in an interview. “But if we're going to shoot wrong, I want to shoot
too high and then moderate. There's no sin in that."
Meyer, the chairwoman of the math department here at Dobson High, an 84-acre
campus of stucco buildings, said she was one of many teachers who supported the
idea of a high school exit exam. Where
the state erred, Ms. Meyer said, was in devising a test for all students that
would have been better used to select students for honors. "We have many
good citizens who do excellent work in our society that wouldn't be able to pass
a college-prep math test, and really don't need to," she said.
problems with the exam, the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS,
can be traced to the mid-1990's, when committees of teachers appointed by state
education officials began writing standards
expectations of what students should know.
math committee, creating a model curriculum for the state's students that would
challenge even the most gifted, included rarefied concepts like matrices and
algorithms, as well as foundations of high school math like solving algebraic
equations and reading graphs.
David M. Smith, a mathematics teacher who served on a subsequent state
committee, which translated the standards into exam questions, said there was
always a basic flaw: the earlier committee that wrote the standards was not told
until later that the State Board of Education would consider all the concepts in
that curriculum fair game on tests.
were told to write questions to the standards," said Mr. Smith, who has
been teaching math for 28 years. "We protested the difficulty of the
standards at every step, but we were told that they couldn't be changed."
October 1997, the state identified the class of 2001 the class that was in ninth
grade at the time as the first class that would be required to pass the math
test, as well as tests in reading and writing. But a year later, the effort was
sufficiently behind that the class of 2001 was off the hook, and the class of
2002 was told it would be the first.
school districts refused to take the approaching exams seriously, recalling that
in the early 1990's the state had introduced a precursor to AIMS, called ASAP
(Arizona Student Assessment Program), standardized tests that used a common
subject like the rain forest as grist for reading, math and writing questions.
Soon after her 1994 election, Ms. Keegan killed the program, saying its value
the spring of 1999, the class of 2001 sat for the exams as a pilot, and the
results on the math exam were disastrous (12 percent passed), with the writing
only somewhat better (28 percent passed). A
more encouraging 61 percent passed the reading exam on the first try.
outcry was swift, but Ms. Keegan insisted that every student could meet the
challenge. Before the exams taken last spring by the class of 2002 were even
graded, however, she changed course, appointing another panel of math teachers
to delete from the test those concepts that they considered too advanced,
including analysis of matrices and writing of algorithms.
July, the State Board of Education put off the math requirement until the class
of 2004 at the earliest.
after the second round of failing test scores (16 percent passed the math, 33
percent passed the writing) were released this fall, Ms. Keegan pulled back
again. She announced that she would ask all district superintendents how many
years they thought it might take to prepare students for the tests, and how
those tests might be changed.
Rogers, 16, a junior at Dobson who passed the math, reading and writing exams,
has no doubt that scores will eventually improve, but to what end?
might teach to the test, but leave out the creativity and beauty of
learning," she said. "It'll just be a facade to reassure the public
that education in Arizona is going up."
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