Tuesday, September 05, 2000

State test failures raise angst

40% of 4th-graders could be held back

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

About this series

        COLUMBUS — Of every five third-graders in Ohio schools, two might flunk fourth grade unless proficiency test scores improve. That possibility has upset parents and educators and sent some lawmakers scurrying to roll back legal requirements.

        “We're punishing 9-year-olds because they're not reading where the state of Ohio or where legislators think they should be reading. I think that's ridiculous,” said Joyce Bowersock, assistant superintendent in Lima.

        Prodded by concerns about students' poor academic skills, state lawmakers approved a battery of proficiency tests for Ohio schoolchildren beginning in 1987.

        Critics of the tests point out that this spring, 128,061 fourth-graders took the test and 53,434 failed, about 42 percent. They worry that huge numbers of children will be labeled failures, especially in poorer districts.

        “When our children come to school there's a lot of issues they bring with them that affect their ability to learn, such as a difficult home life with parents who aren't involved,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Jemison, school board president of the low-income East Cleveland City School District.

        How to fairly and accurately measure student achievement has become a debate nationally after decades in which funding levels, curriculum and resources were more of a focus.

        “I don't know a state that hasn't seen these questions arise,” said Shelby Samuelsen, an education research analyst with the National Council of State Legislatures.

        Some Republican lawmakers have proposed shortening the five days of fourth-grade testing and delaying the requirement for reading proficiency in order to pass to the fifth grade. Some Democrats want to stop the tests until a complete study is done of their effectiveness.

        Rep. Kerry Metzger, a New Philadelphia Republican, introduced legislation to change the tests after hearing complaints from teachers and administrators throughout his district.

        “Many of them say, "We're not opposed to assessments, we're not opposed to the accountability that's put on us. We want to make sure it's done right,” he said.

        Mr. Metzger wants to eliminate science and citizenship from the fourth-grade test and delay the fourth-grade reading guarantee.

        But Sen. C.J. Prentiss, a Democrat whose district includes Cleveland city schools — the state's largest district and one of the most academically troubled — argues that the tests are the only way to get some parents to pay attention to the quality of public schools.

        Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, has unsuccessfully asked lawmakers to delay bills affecting the tests until he gets results of a complete review he ordered. Besides Mr. Metzger, at least three other lawmakers have introduced legislation regarding the tests this year. The Governor's Commission for Student Success is expected to report its findings near the end of the year.

        Sen. Gene Watts, a Dublin Republican, fought for proficiency tests in the 1980s and isn't ready to sound a retreat.

        “I'll remind you that at that time, we were literally graduating students with a high school diploma who could only read at the fourth-grade level,” Mr. Watts said. “The Ohio public wants higher standards, they want high expectations, and lawmakers are listening to a very small minority of people who have been yelling and screaming about it.”


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