Friday, June 15, 2001

Education bill
sure to test schools

The legislation meets with both
optimism and local concerns

Staff and wire reports

One thing is for sure: There will be more tests. Lots more.

As members of the U.S. House and Senate meet in conference in the coming weeks to hammer out differences in two versions of a sweeping education bill, the question is whether states, school districts, educators and the testing industry can handle the new battery of standardized exams. Both versions require reading and math tests of every child in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school.

The Senate yesterday overwhelmingly passed a measure to require annual school testing and penalize failing schools if they do not improve.

While Hawaii schools chief Paul LeMahieu finds favor with the "big picture" of the Bush education plan, the notion of annual testing does not sit well with him.

"I don't know about testing every kid every year," LeMahieu said in a recent meeting with Star-Bulletin editors and reporters. "You don't need to take the plant out to check the roots but every so often."

In approving the bill 91-8, the Senate handed Bush a legislative triumph on an issue he heavily promoted on the campaign trail and hoped to turn into a chief accomplishment of his first year in office. Hawaii's Sen. Daniel Akaka voted for the bill; Sen. Daniel Inouye did not vote.

The House passed its own education bill last month.

The legislation comes amid growing opposition to the expanding use of tests to determine promotion, graduation, merit pay and school evaluations.

Parents in affluent suburban communities have complained that the focus on the tests has led to the dumbing down of lessons.

Reports of cheating, by students and adults, have become widespread. Teachers are fleeing classrooms where test preparation has usurped their curriculum. And a series of scoring errors by the handful of large companies that create most of the tests has raised questions about fairness and reliability.

"There is a greater potential to do things well, and there's also greater potential to do things not so well," said Matthew Gandal, vice president of Achieve, a coalition of governors and business leaders that supports using tests to raise academic standards.

"If they approach these issues intelligently and strategically, it could improve education, but there are hurdles to clear."

The bill expands the federal role in education by increasing financing and tying it to clear measures of progress in mandatory annual tests. But the legislation leaves most of the details up to the states.

Only 15 states have annual testing; the rest will have to develop additional exams over the next few years.

The statewide teachers strike in April derailed the planned start this spring of the Hawaii Assessment Program, the state's first test to measure how well students are meeting state academic standards.

"It was to be the baseline," LeMahieu said of the first test. "Last year we piloted, this year we refined, and this spring we were ready to go into the field with a new assessment, very solid assessment aligned with our standards.

"We had to cancel in part because the window of opportunity shut on us," LeMahieu said. "I was really concerned about its validity if it were to go forward in the turmoil ... after coming back from strike."

The test will be pushed back to next spring, which means fully implementing an accountability system of rewards, sanctions and assistance will likely be delayed to 2005.

The assessment, which will link standards to accountability for the first time in Hawaii, will test students in grades 3, 5, 8 and once in high school in math, reading and writing.

The Stanford Achievement Test, a standardized test that had been given in math and reading in selected grades in previous years, will continue to be given as part of the Hawaii assessment. But it will be in an abbreviated version that provides a look at how well Hawaii students are doing compared with students across the nation.

LeMahieu said he disagrees with some details of the Bush plan -- including annual testing, which he said is "a bit too much" -- and he hopes the federal plan will not interfere with the state's testing and accountability plans.

LeMahieu said he has had a conversation with U.S. Education Secretary Ron Paige and other officials, who indicated there could be some flexibility in the way the education initiative is carried out.

"I've had conversations with folks where they come across very reassuring, that what they want to do is set up perimeters and folks can work within them, provisions for waivers as long as you're delivering a sensible plan that adheres to their basic ideas," LeMahieu said.

The quality of state exams already varies widely, and some experts fear that the pressure to add tests will quickly lead to cheap multiple-choice questions rather than essays, which are more substantive but difficult to score.

Eva Baker, co-director of the Center for Research on Education, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA, said technology might help with the capacity problem, envisioning a future of automated test-taking and scoring. But the larger issue, she said, is that policy makers have mostly focused on the results of tests, rather than use them to shape the curriculum.

"Until the test information finds its way back to the classroom, you're not going to get the impact people really want," Baker said. "Part of it is a conflict between what the most lofty goals and high utility of the system might be, and its balancing against people's willingness to pay for it."

Though the House and Senate version bills share a focus on testing and accountability, there are several important differences.

They include financing -- the Senate offers $41.8 billion, the House $24 billion -- and timing: The House would require annual testing in reading and math by the fall of 2004, the Senate a year later (the Senate also requires testing in science).

They also measure progress differently, with the House requiring schools to show improvement in every subset of its students, breaking down the data by categories like race and income.

The New York Times and Star-Bulletin reporter
Crystal Kua contributed to this report.

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