October 10, 1996 in Washington Voices

Test Case Standardized Tests Purport To Give A Snapshot Of How Schools Are Doing, But Are They Really Worthwhile?

By The Spokesman-Review
 

On Monday morning, sixth-graders in Darla Armacost’s class at Adams Elementary sat down to four math problems. One was on fractions, one on decimals, one on exponents and one on subtraction.

The problems come from a program called Math Pacing. Educators in the Central Valley School District developed it after seeing low math computation scores on standardized tests.

On the other side of the Valley, a parent at Pasadena Park Elementary spent hours on the phone last month, gathering a corps of 20 parent volunteers to help proctor the nationally standardized tests taken this week. The parent proctors are one strategy in a new West Valley program called Project Pride. The two projects, Math Pacing and Project Pride, represent different approaches to improving standardized test scores. One seeks to improve learning; the other seeks to build better test-taking skills.

Underlying these two approaches, though, is an issue on which parents and educators disagree: What good are test scores? What do they tell us about a school?

Across the nation and in the Spokane Valley, educators and the public see standardized tests so differently, they seem to be on two sides of the looking glass.

Educators see the test scores as one part of a complex whole. Even principals of schools that score well tend to shy away from too much praise.

“Will you still like me … if the scores go down a point?” asked Dennis Olson, principal of Chester Elementary, where scores have been high in recent years.

For educators, other factors in the complicated picture of student learning include such variables as parent volunteer hours, the amount of time students spend reading outside school, programs for at-risk and other students, excellent teaching and the importance attached by parents and teachers to academic excellence.

Parents, on the other hand, tend to count on test scores as a bedrock measure of a school’s success or failure.

This chasm persists, despite the fact that in 1993 the Legislature created the Commission on Student Learning to overhaul the way our teachers both teach and test students’ learning. Known as the state “essential learnings” and “competency testing,” that system is in the works. Added to the standardized tests, by the turn of the century it will create a dramatically new landscape for testing students.

Both the debate and the shift in testing are echoed nationally, said Bob Silverman, state testing evaluator at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Regardless of the big changes under way, today’s standardized test scores - especially low ones - remain a divisive issue.

“You can’t always choose the tests that life puts in front of you,” said Frank Galizia, a West Valley parent who helped found Project Pride.

“I could be doing something more than teaching (students) how to do bubble tests,” said Dave Smith, West Valley schools superintendent. Smith goes on to say that Project Pride does have value, including more parent involvement in schools and a better focus on the importance of test taking.

Parents and educators, of course, put test scores to startlingly different uses.

Parents sometimes use a single year of scores for big decisions - whether to move into neighborhood A or B, for instance.

“We actually get more of those calls these days than we used to,” said Chester Elementary principal Olson. “Mostly from out-of-state families, not local families. They say, ‘Send me your test scores and … anything else you think will help acquaint me with your school.”’

Some businesses use test scores to help decide where to relocate, said Steve Hauschild, the other co-founder of Project Pride. The scores also can influence the resale value of homes, said Martena Peterson, a Valley real estate agent and West Valley parent.

On the other hand, educators use standardized test scores mostly in sweeps of two or three years or more. A single score is a pinpoint that doesn’t tell them much. A pattern of improving scores means they’re doing something right. A nosedive in the scores means something in the classroom needs to change.

“Our math computation scores were down in the low 40s,” said Geoff Praeger, Central Valley’s testing guru. “Now they’re up in the high 60s.”

“We didn’t endlessly drill on math facts. Instead we put together a program to make sure they understand the underlying principles they’re being tested on.”

The resulting program, Math Pacing, reviews all concepts regularly, no matter what the teaching focus is at any particular time of year. That’s why the four problems required of sixth-graders this Monday covered such different areas of math.

The division between parents and educators comes together on one point: Both want academic success.

The West Valley parents who jump-started Project Pride want their children in schools that put out a competitive product. Educators want to see their teaching pay off.

The Math Pacing program is paying off, Praeger said. Central Valley district is in the midst of adopting a new math book for the third graders - one that is actually a fourth-grade level book.

“It’s amazing how much that little bit of review helps. It’s nice to see the kids doing so well,” Praeger said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WEST VALLEY PROGRAMS AIMED AT RAISING TEST SCORES From brain bucks to parent proctors, West Valley School District has developed strategies to raise its students’ standardized test scores. The plan is called Project Pride. It stemmed from parents’ concerns after West Valley eighth and 11th grade scores came in lower than most other Spokane area schools last year. “I was very disappointed in the results,” said Steve Hauschild, one of Project Pride’s co-founders. Hauschild knew other parents were concerned as well, so in January he and Frank Galizia approached the school board. “I asked myself, could I become a catalyst to work together with other parents, the board and the district, to recognize academic excellence?” said Hauschild, senior vice president with CoBank, an agricultural lender. Hauschild said he found a warm reception throughout the district. Officials started by talking with other school districts to see how the mechanics of testing was handled. “What are you doing?” Superintendent Dave Smith asked other districts. “Why are you scoring higher than we are? Your kids aren’t any smarter than ours.” They learned that most Spokane area high schools test their 11th-graders in small groups. North Central High School in past years bused its juniors to the Masonic Temple, where they are tested in small groups. West Valley High School this year will test small groups of students instead of doing mass testing in the cafeteria and auditorium. More proctors will be used. The testing will be done over two mornings, not in one four-hour block. A 99-page Project Pride booklet was designed to help 11th-graders prepare for the CFAS tests later this fall. The booklet includes a panoply of suggestions for test day. Regarding breakfast on testing day: “Eat about two-thirds of what you normally eat from breakfast. You do not need blood in your stomach, you need it in your brain.” Or this, under guidelines for educated guessing: “If two answers are similar except for a few words, choose one of these answers. “If two answers have similar sounding or looking words, choose one of these answers. “If an answer calls for sentence completing, eliminate the sentences not grammatically correct. “Choose between B or C.” The book also includes hefty sections on language arts, social studies, math, science and computer questions of the same type that are found on the test. Students who complete all the review exercises in the book will earn 100 brain bucks. The high school will ask local merchants, teachers and parents to donate goodies that can be bought in a brain bucks store. A student’s score, 62 percentile, for instance, will earn him or her 62 brain bucks. Each elementary school and Centennial Middle School also developed its own strategies, including parent proctors, letters home to parents and, at the middle school, posting a CTBS honor roll of eighth-graders who score above the state average. All the strategies “have been developed from the highest ethical standards,” Hauschild said. “We just want to make sure that students are prepared for the game,” he said. “And that’s what it is - a game.” Marny Lombard

This sidebar appeared with the story: WEST VALLEY PROGRAMS AIMED AT RAISING TEST SCORES From brain bucks to parent proctors, West Valley School District has developed strategies to raise its students’ standardized test scores. The plan is called Project Pride. It stemmed from parents’ concerns after West Valley eighth and 11th grade scores came in lower than most other Spokane area schools last year. “I was very disappointed in the results,” said Steve Hauschild, one of Project Pride’s co-founders. Hauschild knew other parents were concerned as well, so in January he and Frank Galizia approached the school board. “I asked myself, could I become a catalyst to work together with other parents, the board and the district, to recognize academic excellence?” said Hauschild, senior vice president with CoBank, an agricultural lender. Hauschild said he found a warm reception throughout the district. Officials started by talking with other school districts to see how the mechanics of testing was handled. “What are you doing?” Superintendent Dave Smith asked other districts. “Why are you scoring higher than we are? Your kids aren’t any smarter than ours.” They learned that most Spokane area high schools test their 11th-graders in small groups. North Central High School in past years bused its juniors to the Masonic Temple, where they are tested in small groups. West Valley High School this year will test small groups of students instead of doing mass testing in the cafeteria and auditorium. More proctors will be used. The testing will be done over two mornings, not in one four-hour block. A 99-page Project Pride booklet was designed to help 11th-graders prepare for the CFAS tests later this fall. The booklet includes a panoply of suggestions for test day. Regarding breakfast on testing day: “Eat about two-thirds of what you normally eat from breakfast. You do not need blood in your stomach, you need it in your brain.” Or this, under guidelines for educated guessing: “If two answers are similar except for a few words, choose one of these answers. “If two answers have similar sounding or looking words, choose one of these answers. “If an answer calls for sentence completing, eliminate the sentences not grammatically correct. “Choose between B or C.” The book also includes hefty sections on language arts, social studies, math, science and computer questions of the same type that are found on the test. Students who complete all the review exercises in the book will earn 100 brain bucks. The high school will ask local merchants, teachers and parents to donate goodies that can be bought in a brain bucks store. A student’s score, 62 percentile, for instance, will earn him or her 62 brain bucks. Each elementary school and Centennial Middle School also developed its own strategies, including parent proctors, letters home to parents and, at the middle school, posting a CTBS honor roll of eighth-graders who score above the state average. All the strategies “have been developed from the highest ethical standards,” Hauschild said. “We just want to make sure that students are prepared for the game,” he said. “And that’s what it is - a game.” Marny Lombard


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