States to Public: Improvement Will Take Time ACHIEVEMENT TESTS

Article excerpt

Don't look for questions like "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" in the latest round of state achievement tests.

After decades of softball exams - where most children scored above average - many states are raising the bar for what students are expected to know and do. And, at least at the beginning, the good news often looks bad.

When 50 percent of Massachusetts 10th-graders failed the state's tough new math test, state officials hailed the results as a historic turning point. At every level except eighth-grade English, most fourth-, eighth-, and 10th-graders failed to reach proficient levels in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), in results announced last week. Ten years ago, such results would have sparked a run on the statehouse by angry parents and real-estate agents. But the Bay State took a cue from states that had already weathered dismal first-round assessments, such as Texas, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. Weeks before releasing the MCAS results, state officials began preparing the public for the low scores - and for the fact that improving them requires a sustained commitment to better content and teaching. "If the first round of scores ... turned out to be high, such as 75 percent demonstrating proficiency, that would tell you that you set the standards too low," says Robert Schwartz, president of Achieve, an independent organization in Cambridge, Mass., created by governors and business leaders in 1996 to advise states on setting higher standards. "The first round tells you just how steep the challenge is. Then, you hope ... that people begin to modify the curriculum, instructional strategies, and professional development. You hope to see a steady upward movement," he adds. Millions spent since 1989 Since the first national education summit in Charlottesville, Va., in 1989, states have spent millions developing new standards for achievement and systems to make sure that schools teach them. The mantra of this new movement: Be clear on what kids should know at each grade level. Use the tests to identify problems, then fix them. Focus the curriculum, mentor the teachers, fire the principal. No excuses. If student achievement doesn't improve, expect even more state intervention. Nearly all states now test student achievement in reading and math, and 28 will have assessments in science and history by 2000. In addition, 19 states now require tests for student promotion or graduation, and 24 have set up sanctions for low-performing school districts, according to Achieve. There have been perils for the pioneers. A poor showing on the first round of tests in some states has fueled calls to scuttle the tests, trash the teachers, or even the public school system. "From 40 to 50 percent {of students} aren't going to meet the new state standards. Of course, there has been some backlash, but there will be a period of rising to those new standards," says Christopher Cross, executive director of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, which also evaluates state standards. To avoid shooting the messenger, states are learning to prepare the public for bad news. In Washington State, for example, officials warned parents that initial test results would not be good and insisted that they be viewed just as a benchmark for needed progress. Local business leaders also mobilized to support the standards effort. "The easy part is passing the standards legislation. The hard part will be sustaining school improvement over the long haul," says Bill Porter, executive director of the Partnership for Learning, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization of business and community leaders set up to boost academic standards and achievement in public schools. …