Thursday, September 21, 2000

Teachers critical of proficiency tests

Survey: Many don't see rise in learning

By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — A survey of Ohio's eighth-grade teachers released Wednesday shows that nearly half think the ninth-grade proficiency tests have either caused no change or actually decreased student learning.

        The survey results, part of a comprehensive study of the ninth-grade tests, found that many teachers view the exams as an intrusion in their classrooms.

        “The level of buy-in for the test is surprisingly low considering the test has been administered for 10 years,” the study said.

        Conducted by the Legislative Office of Education Oversight (LOEO) for a legislative committee, the study also found that Ohio students routinely struggle to pass the ninth-grade tests long after they pass the ninth grade.

        “The fact that 40 percent of the class of 2000 still had to spend time in high school trying to master the minimum standards of a middle school curriculum, that's a cause for concern,” said Nancy Zajano, director of the LOEO.

        Although the number of ninth-graders passing the tests has increased from 46 percent to 66 percent in the last decade, the figures show that the state “still has a long way to go,” Ms. Zajano said.

        The issue is made more complex by a state mandate that in 2003 will require students to pass a much harder test in order to graduate.

        Teachers say the new test will put even more pressure on students because it will be administered in 10th grade instead of ninth — providing fewer opportunities to pass.

        “It is a more rigorous test, and it presents a lot more stress for them,” said Bonnie Fitzharris, curriculum coordinator for the Fairfield schools.

        Ms. Fitzharris said the move to more difficult tests already has parents, teachers and students worried and confused.

        “That's all they want to talk about,” she said. “It's a big question on everyone's minds.”

        Jan Leslie, public affairs director for the Cincinnati Public Schools, said the district is responding by redesigning the five high schools with the worst test scores. In those schools — Aiken, Taft, Western Hills, Withrow and Woodward — just 13 percent to 20 percent of ninth-graders pass the current test.

        Under the new system, students will be placed in groups of 90 and assigned to four to five teachers who will stay with them over a two-year period, or until they pass the 10th-grade tests.

        “We're going to do what we need to do (to pass students),” Ms. Leslie said.

        She said the district welcomes the tests, but there are problems, including that the state implemented testing before it decided what districts should be teaching. “Ohio did it backwards,” she said.

        The study also found other major problems with the proficiency tests, including:

        • Half of the 571 eighth-grade teachers in the survey reported a discrepancy between what they think should be taught and what is tested.

        • Thirty-four percent think the tests did not change student learning; 12 percent thought it slightly decreased learning; and 3 percent thought it greatly decreased learning.

        • Some test preparation is not appropriate. For example, 63 percent of teachers said they focused on the format of the test questions in the month prior to testing, which could result in higher test scores without improved learning.

        • The state controls what is tested, but local school districts control what is taught.

        Sen. Robert Gardner, chairman of the legislative committee on education oversight, which is reviewing the study, said he supports implementing the tougher 10th-grade tests. But, he said, teachers must be given enough time to prepare for them.

        “The last thing we want to do is tell kids they have to pass a test without giving them the knowledge base to do it,” he said.

        To help in that preparation, the study recommended that the Ohio Board of Education adopt academic standards that clearly state what students should know by certain grades.

        The study also said legislators should provide money for poor school districts to pay teachers for professional training in how to use the new academic standards in their lesson plans.

        “It's hard to be into something you don't fully understand,” Ms. Zajano said. “Some teachers haven't had the time to put the kind of thought and analysis into this that is necessary.”


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