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Welcome to Idyllia: A Hypothetical Community Deals With School Test Scores

The release of test scores for schools in the hypothetical state of Idyllia has piqued the interest of almost everyone -- from school superintendents to realtors. The high level of interest has raised some interesting issues: How should school staff communicate news -- both good and bad -- about their scores? How should schools respond to the concerns of parents and the reaction of the media? Those were some of the questions debated during a panel discussion at the April Education Writers Association conference. Included: Suggestions for ways administrators can handle dips in test scores.

Welcome to the state of Idyllia, a community in which -- as in most other communities today -- student performance is closely monitored. The high level of interest in local school test scores raises some interesting issues:

A family weighing which school district to move into considers whether to delay its decision until after scores from the annual state assessment tests are released.

A usually high-performing school district has seen a recent drop in test scores. How do reactions from school administrators, teachers, the community, and the media affect one another?

Those were two of the scenarios discussed by 14 panelists at a Fred Friendly seminar, "Whose Truths? Perspectives, Perceptions and the Public Good." The seminar took place in April during the Education Writers Association annual conference in Washington, D.C. Participants in the seminar included parents, teachers, television and print reporters, and state, local, and national educational officials.

Panelists Debate Education Perceptions and Perspectives

Among the main points of the recent panel discussion on educational accountability:

* School administrators already are under pressure to maintain and improve student test scores.

* Community members -- whether parents or businesspeople -- attach a lot of weight to test results, even if that emphasis is not warranted.

* When looking at test scores, no one in the schools, community, or media should rush to judgment.

* Although media coverage of test results often is not as substantive as it could be, press coverage plays a critical role in providing contextual information about scores.

* School administrators need to establish and maintain ongoing communication with the community and the media.
The two-hour dialogue, moderated by John Hockenberry of NBC-TV's Dateline, may be broadcast on public television in the fall.

Near the end of the panel discussion, U.S. Undersecretary of Education Eugene Hickok said that the dialogue showed the importance of knowing more about a school system than just its test scores. "We started out this conversation [talking] about numbers, which are very antiseptic," Hickok said. "Then we heard the stories behind the numbers, and they are very human. No Child Left Behind makes it more difficult to ignore problems. The goal is a very human goal."

To illustrate how important individual schools' test scores can be to a community, Phyllis Jordan, an assignment editor at The Washington Post, said that real estate agents in her newspaper's circulation area carry laminated copies of published test scores to show prospective home buyers.

"Most parents and real estate agents are very aware of test scores," Jordan said. "More than [a picture of] how students are doing, the scores are a reflection of a school's demographics."

Hockenberry asked Jordan whether decisions involving real estate valued at a quarter or half million dollars could depend on test scores?

"Sure," Jordan replied. "The scores indicate a lot of things."

"[The concern with test scores] has to do with reputation," adds Richard Colvin, an education writer for the Los Angeles Times. "Teachers know they will have an easier life at a school with high test scores. Test scores are a starting point from which a lot of decisions flow."

Test scores should not be the only factor in choosing a school, however, several panelists noted. When asked whether she would wait a day for a school's test scores to come out before buying a house, panelist Delabian Rice-Thurston said yes -- but she would do other research as well.

"I would definitely wait for test scores before making a decision," said Rice-Thurston, former executive director of Parents United for the Washington, D.C., public schools, "but more important, I would visit the schools and talk to children and teachers. I would not limit my decision to a consideration of test scores."

Even if she was deciding between two schools and the scores at one had dropped recently, that would not necessarily be the deciding factor, Rice-Thurston said. "More important are the child's cohorts. As long as the child has a stable group of kids who are highly motivated and teachers who are teaching well, those factors would be most important."


All this attention on test scores makes it easy to understand why a significant one-year drop in scores in an affluent, usually high-performing district would fill a superintendent with dread.

When Hockenberry asked Ronald Peiffer, Maryland's assistant state superintendent of schools, how he would respond to a drop in test scores, Peiffer said that differences in test scores from year to year really do not mean much. Something might have occurred during the administration of the tests that affected the scores, he said. "Most of the time the public doesn't realize that these swings happen."

Community members, however, would be very concerned. "We would have a major public relations problem," Peiffer said. "I would be very nervous about it."

If only ten to 15 parents turned out to protest the decline in test scores, the demonstration would be covered, pointed out Yvonne Simons, an education reporter for WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina. "I would publicize the scores, try to explain the background, and arrange interviews with the superintendent in advance."

Peiffer said multiple choice tests might best fulfill the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires testing every year, individual scores, and fairly quick scoring of tests. The NCLB requirements make using costly, slow-to-score essay tests, which Idyllia used, very difficult.

Other administrators on the panel also offered advice. "It may be that the test indicates a lack of progress," said Jim Horne, secretary of the Florida Board of Education. "Before you go public, however, you have to do some digging. You may need to look at mobility factors, spikes, and cohorts and other factors that might have to do with the students tested."

A 10 percent drop in scores, for example, could mean that two new children in a class of 20 affected the outcome, said Lawrence Rudner, director of the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation. "Parents don't understand that."

"Emphasize that the kids still are doing well and getting into good colleges," added Carl Cohn, superintendent of the Long Beach (California) Unified School District.

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Hickok, after joking that his first words would be "I'm from the federal government, and I'm here to help," said he would advise a superintendent faced with lower test scores to learn what those scores indicate. "The scores are one snapshot. I would ask what we are learning from the test scores over time."

In the classroom, news of lower scores would mean continuous drills on test material, said Lee Sparks, a senior at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. "It would mean that the blackboard would have on it an objective for the day having to do with the test. We would do that for two months. The teacher would not have time to go over any other material. We're playing a game. We're playing Trivial Pursuit. What can we do to pass?"

Teachers in that school would need to ask themselves "What did I do differently this year than last year?" said Peter Ford III, a middle school mathematics teacher from Los Angeles. He said he would start preparing students for assessment tests from the beginning of the school year, changing the curriculum to incorporate test material.

Ford could be the "poster child" for test preparation, Hockenberry suggested, demonstrating that it can work as part of the curriculum. Ford, though, said he hates standardized tests, considering them an "affront." He prepares students for tests, he said, because it is part of his job.

Ford added that changing tests after one year of poor results "is a teacher's worst nightmare. Just because something doesn't work in one quarter, doesn't mean you change it. You need to look at trends over several years. It takes time to see something work."

Hockenberry then asked the panelists how they would respond if some residents cited a change in the population as the reason for a decline in test scores -- that 20 Cambodians had moved into the town, for example.

Breaking down data to show how different populations affect scores is OK, Cohn said, but administrators also need to stress the richness that different ethnic groups, such as the Cambodians, bring to the school system. "Disaggregating by race is good for educators -- but the media's analysis of this is not as substantive as it needs to be," he said. "At the same time, you need to work on interventions that are race-neutral."


Robert Riccobono, a former superintendent of schools in Brooklyn, New York, and now a professor at New York University, said that the biggest problem can be the rush to judge the scores. "Superintendents need to let the press have access. They need to do what they can to explain a drop in scores without making excuses."

Lela Curtis, a part-time English teacher in the Alexandria, Virginia, public schools, said she is not convinced of the value of assessment tests. "Part of the problem is that the tests keep changing. You have to look at where the kids are going after high school and college -- not just focus on a stupid test."

Parents in lower-performing districts, however, are grateful for test data, said Thurston-Rice. "In a school system in which there is no confidence, you're glad to have nationally standardized tests. You can have tests, but you also need learning. Tests can break the cycle of 'We'll pretend to teach, and they'll pretend to learn.'"

Added Riccobono: "Administrators don't know what's going on in their classrooms on a daily basis. We need some way of monitoring how kids learn.Without testing and media coverage of test results, schools in poor neighborhoods would not get better."

Often, though, tests do not align with a school's curriculum, and teachers are unclear about what is expected of them, said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Teachers also need more support. "They may have been beaten down because they have seen too many programs come and go.

"Good news about schools needs to be news as well," Feldman noted. "There are stories of legitimate improvement," she pointed out, and those also need to be covered by the media.