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Opinion Column
For the week of March 28 through April 3, 2001

National testing rates a low score

Commentary by JoEllen Collins

Through many years of being a teacher, mother and citizen, I have seen "remedies" for the woes that beset public education come and go.

When my brother was a child, the use of phonics to teach reading was abandoned, only to be reinstated years later with a combination of improved techniques.

In February I spent a delightful evening listening to Bill Cosby perform. He joked that the main difference between now and his youth was that, instead of being found dyslexic or hyperactive, he was just labeled "stupid." We all laughed, but the laughter reflected a rueful sense of reality. My brother was a child who, in the 50s began a school career of failure. When his excessive energy was read as naughtiness in kindergarten, there were no education learning specialists or teachers who knew what to do with him. Pre-counseling and pre-Ritalin, he floundered from the minute his tiny shoes entered the classroom until he finally made it into a small Christian college willing to give him a chance. Unfortunately, when his girlfriend became pregnant, the college expelled him for "moral turpitude." His natural intelligence has never been channeled positively in an educational environment.

I remember a student of mine, a captive in the late-60s of a then-popular educational "remedy," who begged to be admitted to my college-preparatory senior English class. Labeled as low average as a first grader, perhaps because of his Spanish language background, he spent years in boring classes segregated according to ability groupings. This practice, called "tracking," was a policy of the time later to be abandoned and then reinstated in many public schools.

Teachers were supposed to grade students with a whole school comparison, remedial (termed RR) students compared to superior (XX) students; thus my average (T for "typical," believe it or not) students were not supposed to get more than a "C" grade. Imagine the frustration of a teenager who learned the material geared to his level and was rewarded with only a "C." No wonder my student yearned for a more challenging classroom environment. As it turned out, he still got a "C" the first semester, and then a "B" the next. The experience didnít change his records much, but being in a place of stimulating ideas did. It was, he said, the first time in 12 years that he had looked forward to class.

I have a concern with the latest "remedy." At a time when The University of California is considering dropping the inclusion of SAT scores in determining college admission, our president is urging the use of widespread testing of students to ascertain the success of public education. I worry about this reflex back to a more conservative means of rating school performance, even though I grant that some accountability is needed. I simply donít think this is the way to do it.

I fear the installation of a national testing system and the massive amounts of money involved, most of which will profit testing companies and the infrastructure needed to administer the examinations. I would rather see the money used to insure smaller classes and honor gifted teachers, both proven boosters for student success.

But what I really worry about is that teachers across this country will feel pressured to teach to the test.

As a Peace Corps teacher in Thailand, I taught my students conversational English, according to Thai government requests. Yet my fellow English teachers, Thais who had been trained to instruct via rote and memorization, felt they couldnít adopt my methods because their students had to shine on district-wide language proficiency tests. I was dismayed when I saw the head of the English department teaching her kids to memorize the correct answers to the tests.

I found a similar push to have students excel in required tests when I taught at Beverly Hills High School. While my colleagues engaged in excellent and dynamic instruction and curricula, still they felt under constant pressure to train their college-bound students to do well on SATs.

Recently the San Francisco Board of Education considered revoking the contract of a private company hired to increase a charter schoolís test scores. It has been suggested that poorly performing students were sent to other schools as a means of keeping school scores high. Testing for accountability may be a "remedy" fraught with pressures.

Our public schools have many problems, but most of them are due to changing family structures, societal mores and population shifts, I believe, than to a lack of quality instruction. My last public school job, seven years ago, at a large LA high school, reminded me of the daunting task educators face. Not only did I "rove" between five different classrooms, but I was required by law to check for drug use, see if students had bruises as signs of physical abuse, and then enforce a school dress code which barred scarves, caps or baggy pants. This was before even starting teaching! One of my seniors presented her semester project on her involvement in a drive-by gang shooting. The other students were blasť in reaction.

The kind of testing that is being proposed is not much more than a waste of time. It is a Band-Aid that merely patches a small part of the deep wounds infecting our families and schools.



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