T Emily Pyle Child Left Behind:’ the by cost us twice as much as they’re giving us, and there’s no reform measures passed by Congress in January. “It may sweeping education reform administration’s THE STAKES chools across the country FOR STATES are scrambling to comply with the requirements of “No money to pay for it,” Vermont Governor Howard Dean told The Christian Science Monitor in May. Vermont, which ranks sixth in the nation in education, flirted briefly with refusing to implement the testsforegoing federal funding but surrendered in July. So far, despite grumbling, no state is in open revolt against the legislation. High-stakes testing is at the heart of the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which appropriates just over half the $49 billion granted to education in this year’s federal budget. The legislation requires states to develop and administer standardized tests for every grade between third and eighth, as well as at least one grade between the sophomore and senior years of high school, or forfeit federal Title I money for low-income schools. States are required to test reading and math by 2005 and science by 2007. States may test other areas, like writing or history, at their discretion. The law requires schools and districts receiving Title I money to show yearly improvement on tests within every ethnic, language, and socioeconomic group. All schools are required to have 100% of students passing the tests within 12 years. Schools that fail to show adequate progress on the test, as the states define it, in every group, are desig nated as “needing improvement.” The new rules kick in immediately for states that presently have accountability systems, as Texas does. Already about 8,600 schools across the country have been slapped with the “needs improvement” label for the coming school year. States without accountability systems in place have two years to implement them. If a school needs improvement for two straight years, parents may opt to transfer their children to schoolsor districts, if need bewith higher test scores. Failing schools must use Title I money to pay the transportation costs of sending their students away. After 2003, a school that has failed to show improvement for three years running must use Title I money to pay for tutoring or educational programs that can be received from religious or for-profit agencies. After four years on the “needs improvement” list, schools must restructure by replacing curriculum, appointing outside experts as advisors, extending the school day or year, or even by firing staff considered responsible for the failure. Schools that need improvement for five straight years face even tougher options: submit to takeover by the government, hire a private contractor, or convert to a charter school. Critics of the legislation point out a gap between the improvements the federal government demands and the funding it provides. While states are allowed to use federal money to reward teachers who produce high scores, no extra dollars are available to the schools who take in kids from failing schools. Meanwhile, no extra federal funding is provided for low-scoring schoolsoften also the poorest schoolswhich will be further taxed if they fail and must pick up the costs of hiring private tutors and bussing students out of the area. Julie Pennington was a reading specialist teaching sixth grade until she left recently for academia. She has watched as the pressure to succeed on the TAAS test has migrated down to the first grade, where bewildered 6-year-olds who have trouble reading find themselves in special ed classes “because the third-grade TAKS is coming.” She says the test fails to teach young children how to read material, think about it, critique it, see it from different viewpoints, and make it their own in creative ways. In short, it fails to prepare children to think critically. “Normally you would have a child read a book, discuss it and make inferences,” she says. “The TAAS test reading passages are not complete reading passages, they are sections.The confines of a multiple choice test do not allow for alternative thinking.” As a teacher she knows how to “teach to the test,” a method geared solely to finding the correct answer. “We are not going to have a big discussion about this passage,” she explains. “We are going to tell the kids, ‘look at the questions first. Look for key phrases in those questions.’ There are different tricks. [Some] questions you can answer without reading the text.” TAAS writing is by rote, in a five-sentence, five-paragraph essay format. “Writing as it relates to thinking, to language development and fluency, to understanding one’s audience, to enriching one’s vocabulary, to developing ideas, has been replaced by TAAS writing,” concludes Rice’s Linda McNeil and Angela Valenzuela, a UT-Austin professor, in a joint academic paper. Even the winners lose if all they get is functional literacy. “We have some very bright children that do pass the TAAS and can do TAAS writing,” says Pennington. “But then you give them a blank piece of paper and ask them to write a story without some kind of template, they can’t produce anything.” Test proponents argue that writing is harder to score because it’s subjective. They also note that a little bit of basic writing and reading instruction is better than nothing at all. Unfortunately, it’s a zero sum game. Instruction does not come free. As districts frantically try to elevate their scores, they divert scarce instructional dollars from important continued on page 29 8130102 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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