Finding the Answers to Test "Problems": State Lawmakers Seek Better Way to Conduct Proficiency Tests

Bill Rice- On a recent Saturday morning David Erdelyi prepares a group of Paul Revere Elementary students for the math proficiency test --- one of a battery of such tests that will be given to 4th graders statewide next week. Only about a dozen students are present, but others will benefit from the session as well. Each year the Cleveland Municipal School District videotapes a number of such sessions, and they're broadcast repeatedly on the local access cable channel.

Proficiency testing is a big deal, education officials say. It weighs heavily in evaluating districts and individual schools to gage their success at meeting state accountability standards. But dissatisfaction with Ohio's system of testing students' knowledge is widespread - among parents, teachers and administrators. Of most concern to Sharon Smith, Director of Instruction at Medina City Schools, is the approved-but-not-yet-implemented 4th grade reading guarantee.

Sharon Smith- Starting next year our current 3rd grade students will be under a mandate known as the 4th grade guarantee, which will require us to fail, to retain in 4th grade, any student who does not pass the reading portion of the 4th grade test. That's pretty high stakes for a nine-year-old kid.

BR- And a high-anxiety factor for many parents too, Smith says. But there's a practical objection to the guarantee on the part of the school districts as well: those with exceptionally high failure rates will be forced to hold back an unwieldy number of students.

Jamie Callender- The cost of retaining that number of 4th graders would be prohibitive.

BR- State Representative Jamie Callender chairs the House Education Committee. Callender says the legislature may short-circuit that requirement before it takes, as part of a larger GOP-sponsored bill he says would completely overhaul proficiency testing in Ohio. House Bill 1 incorporates most of the recommendations made recently by the Governor's Commission on Student Success, which, during its two-year study of Ohio's education system, found numerous problems with proficiency tests. Test overload is among the top concerns. Five tests, Callender says -- reading, writing, math, science and citizenship -- all in one crucial week, is a recipe for burnout.

JC- The governor's commission recommends spreading them out -- one in 3rd grade, one in 4th grade, and then two that are not quite as high stakes in 5th grade. That way you don't have the pressures of having to take them all at the same time. Five days of testing is a lot for fourth graders to handle at one time.

BR- Not to mention 6th, 9th and 12th graders, who each year undergo a similar regimen of tests in a single week. House Bill 1 would change that too. The five 6th grade exams would be replaced by the same number spread over the 7th and 8th grades, the 9th grade graduation test would be moved to 10th grade, and the 12th grade test would be eliminated altogether. Overall testing would be reduced by about a third, according to the Governor's Commission report. What is not lost in the plan, Callender says, is school accountability.

JC- For the normal child there is no excuse for him not being able to read by fourth grade. And if the schools have failed that child, then they need to fix that.

BR- How they fix it is up to each local district, Callender says, but they must have some form of intervention strategy: Saturday or summer sessions, after-school instruction, other options... That sounds great to Democratic State Senator CJ Prentiss of Cleveland, except for one thing. Local districts would be required, as they are currently, to foot the bill for such program, and that's difficult for districts with already lean budgets.

CJ Prentiss- These are research based programs that we know work, let's put 'em in here, let's pay for them. Let's not have another unfounded mandate, if you will.

BR- On that point Prentiss has a potential ally in the State Supreme Court, which could rule, as it has in the past, that the state's method of funding of public education shortchanges poor school districts.

Whether or not House Bill 1, and its twin, Senate Bill 1, passes muster with the court will be known in June, the deadline set for lawmakers to come up with a solution to the funding issue. But there's also the question of what may come out of Congress on testing, and no one seems to know just how that might jibe with, or interfere with, state plans to effectively assess students' progress. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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