Cramming For 'The Test', Would Your Kids Pass?

The students at Peirce School in West Newton, Mass., are sharpening their pencils. They're practicing topic sentences and rememorizing the scientific method. It sounds like the cramming that goes on at the colleges that dot the surrounding Boston suburbs. The big difference: these kids are in fourth grade. But the test they're studying for, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, feels just as weighty as any college exam. When their scores are released next fall, they'll be published in the newspaper and become the key indicator of whether Newton's highly regarded schools are really up to snuff. By eighth grade, kids who fail the MCAS won't be promoted; by 10th grade, a failure can mean no diploma. Ask fourth grader Gabe Gladstone about the MCAS, and he assumes the glum look of a child awaiting an allergy shot. "I'm not especially looking forward to them," he says. Is he... scared? "Sort of," he says meekly. "Yeah."

Standardized tests are a ritual of classroom life, but across the country kids are sweating over a new breed of "high stakes" tests. Low scores can mean students won't get promoted or graduate. In some states, principals can be terminated if scores fail to improve; school districts can face state takeovers. Many educators deplore the new exams, but politicians and the public are cheering. The tests are a key part of a nationwide reform effort to bring "standards" and "accountability" to public schools. And with education a key concern among voters, expect high-stakes exams to multiply. "We have to shock the system into realizing that standards need to be raised," says Massachusetts school commissioner David P. Driscoll. "If you were the commissioner of education, you wouldn't want these [low-scoring] kids graduating from high school--it'd be a disservice."

Even in Massachusetts, where kids score well on SATs and attend college at an above-average rate, the tests have caused much classroom turmoil. They hit kids' desks for the first time in April 1998. Fourth graders wrote essays on the heroism of Molly Pitcher and designed an experiment testing the effectiveness of plant fertilizer. Eighth graders described how to use medians and means to analyze basketball scores. Tenth graders wrote on Shakespeare and Faulkner, and pondered tough geometry questions.

State officials expected low scores. First-year results are a "baseline," like the ugly "before" pictures in a Weight Watchers ad. They weren't disappointed: 66 percent of fourth graders needed improvement in English, 40 percent of eighth graders failed science and 50 percent of sophomores failed math. As students take another try at the MCAS next week, two questions echo through schools across the state: Can we pass this test? And if not, what then?

In the months leading up to last year's MCAS debut, fourth graders at Peirce trained methodically. The district's writing specialist drilled them on essay writing; in science, teachers Helen Randolph and Anne Lyons reviewed lessons on the solar system and the water cycle that students might not recall from second grade. When testing began in April, "junky snack stuff started disappearing," recalls Monica Bennett, as parents sent in healthy "brain food" like bananas. Homework disappeared, too, as testing stretched on for weeks. Says teacher Meredith Shaw: "It was an endurance test." But when scores were released last December, those banana-eating fourth graders had posted the state's top scores.

Those results are no surprise to the folks at FairTest, a Cambridge-based advocacy group that rails against high-stakes tests. They claim these exams favor affluent kids like Newton's; worse still, they test trivia, eat up classroom time and ignore myriad talents (like creativity) not covered on tests. "These tests ignore all of the research, all of the evidence, all of the opinions of professionals," says Bob Shaeffer, FairTest's public-education director. "But [testing] is the new Hula Hoop--it's sweeping the nation."

Those criticisms resonate through the hallways of Madison Park High. At this vo-tech school in inner-city Roxbury, 93 percent of students failed the MCAS exams last spring. Administrators can rationalize the poor performance: one third of Madison's 1,600 students are bilingual, another third are special needs, and as a vocational school, kids can't be expected to compete with college-bound kids on pencil-and-paper tests. But for teachers like Judy Baker, the notion that the MCAS may keep kids from graduating is abhorrent. "How many obstacles do we want to erect for these kids?"

Given last year's abysmal scores, Madison Park testing director Paul Schlictman is surprisingly upbeat about the odds for improving them. Since test results were released last fall, "we've been in triage mode," he says, identifying quick fixes to boost scores. Example: last year kids left far too many questions blank. This year teachers will prod them to answer every question, and scores should rise. Teachers now realize the science test emphasizes earth science and that geometry makes up 35 percent of math scores, so they can allot lessons accordingly. The biggest improvement will come over time as the curriculum reforms kick in and kids arrive in eighth grade knowing algebra and 10th graders have learned geometry. Another factor that will raise scores at Madison and elsewhere: last year's sophomores knew there was no penalty for low scores and didn't take the test seriously. But as the MCAS becomes a graduation requirement, they will.

Experts say it's too early to panic at all the failing scores. "The history of [high-stakes] tests is you get high failure rates for two years, then the curve steadily goes up as teachers learn to teach to the test," says Boston College testing expert George Madaus. And the tests have created positive changes. "We're really seeing schools re-emphasize writing in a serious way," says William Guenther of Mass Insight, a local school-reform advocacy group. In the meantime educators hope for improvement from this year's test-takers. "This is the kind of work that takes a generation to do," says Harvard education professor S. Paul Reville. For kids like Gabe Gladstone, that hard work resumes next week.