Sunday, January 11, 2004

Proficiency tests may move

Shift from March to May goes to committee

By Jim Siegel
Gannett News Service

COLUMBUS - The debate over whether students should take proficiency tests in March or in May, closer to the end of the school year, is heading for a legislative showdown.

Supporters say it makes sense to test students for a full year of work, which doesn't happen now under a system when tests are given in March. Opponents argue the cost and logistics of such a test change make the move impractical.

"The test is based off of work completed in March, so we are against spending an additional $14 million of our testing budget to expedite the scoring," said J.C. Benton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education.

But Rep. Bill Hartnett, D-Mansfield, said that doesn't matter "when you're doing something that doesn't make a lot of educational sense."

"If (Education Department officials) oppose this, they are not speaking for the kids," he said. "They are speaking for the generation of data."

Hartnett attached the test change to a bill that implements recommendations of the governor's Commission on Teaching Success. The amendment passed the House on a close vote, but Sen. Robert Gardner, R-Madison, opposed the measure, so the bill was sent to a joint House-Senate committee to work it out.

"I can't imagine too many legislators would say it's OK to test kids early," Hartnett said. "It's not a popular political stand."

Gardner said he understands the desire to have kids tested for a full year of work, but the system isn't designed to let that happen.

"We keep changing the rules for these school districts, which is a pain in the neck in and of itself," he said. "But more importantly than that, we have to restructure all the tests."

Tests now are designed and scored based on the fact that they are given in March. Revising those tests, and the scoring, would cost upward of $14 million, according to the Education Department.

"We just don't have that kind of money right now in the department to do that kind of stuff," Gardner said.

The other problem, Gardner said, is the quick turnaround time needed if the tests are given in May. Districts are required by the No Child Left Behind Act to base tutoring programs on those test results, so they must be completed in early June.

"When you have a turnaround time in June, that's just too hard," Gardner said.

Gardner said he has suggested to Hartnett that he try to push the test change in a separate bill, and he's confident the provision will be removed by the joint committee.

Hartnett said he hopes to be named to that committee, noting he has received letters of support from school officials and teachers around the state. The state's eight largest school districts, among others, are backing the change.

"It simply gives us another six to eight weeks for students to master the content of the exam," said Bill Wendling, executive director of the Ohio 8 Coalition, a group of superintendents and teachers' unions from the state's largest urban districts.

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