hed: Tests to test tests only nurture the bureaucracy

Suppose there's a classroom with 20 students. Suppose they sit down for a state-required test to see if they can match a list of 50 states with 50 state capitals. Suppose the teacher reports 100 percent of the students got 100 percent of the answers correct.

Suppose the same students walk down the hall and into another room to take a federally-required test on which they are to match the 50 state capitals with the 50 states. Suppose those tests are scored and half the students miss half the answers.

Is there a problem? If so, who's to blame?

The situation describes - in rough terms - what's going on with the much-feared NAEP.

The letters stand for National Assessment of Education Progress. The tests, administered to random classes of fourth- and eighth-graders at random schools, are "check-tests."

They are required for one reason: The U.S. Department of Education

doesn't trust state departments of education or local school districts.

Scores show the mistrust may be justified. The federal No Child Left Behind Act is part of the ever-growing politicization of education.

No Child requires that all states devise and administer approved tests to see if todays students are learning better than yesterday's.

Fail to show Adequate Yearly Progress and there are supposed to be all sorts of horrible consequences for districts, principals and individual teachers.

The Mississippi Department of Education was actually a step ahead of Congress and had already set across-the-board curriculum tests in place four years ago.

The new tests replaced the somewhat comical Functional Literacy Exam, nicknamed the "flee" and invented by the Legislature in response to complaints that some graduates can't read or write.

For several years, all Mississippi 11th-graders had to pass the FLE.

Regardless of their grades, no student could get a diploma from a Mississippi high school without proving basic skills such as completing a job application, making change and balancing a checkbook.

Before it was dropped, there never was any documentation the FLE made any difference. Indeed, today, people can still be heard complaining some graduates can't read or write.

The new state tests, quickly approved by the feds, were administered more broadly. A student taking a course in world history has to pass his teacher's specific test, plus the state test on the subject. The point of the state test was to assure the teacher was covering the state-set description of what every Mississippi student should know after taking a world history course. Also, as part of this regimen, each crop of students, under No Child, has also been expected to do better year after year.

But into this mix has come NAEP, supposed to be the cherry on the sundae, but instead showing states, including Mississippi, are not making as much progress as they claim to be making.

With appreciation for the diligence shown by anyone persistent enough to read this far, the point to be made is that tests and testing have less and less to do with whether students are learning and more and more to do with accountability.

From the tremendous education bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., to the smallest district in Mississippi, everyone seems perplexed over

statistic after statistic showing public schools are failing.

The reality, however, is that's completely untrue. Worse, however, is that all the hype and pulling in one direction and tugging in the other is making it harder to teach, not easier. Any Mississippi teacher who has been in the classroom 15 years has been through at least five complete reinventions of the educational process.

Most of these transformations have been designed and ordered into place by people who have never had the pleasure of sitting in front of a group of little kids who didn't know their ABCs at the beginning of the term but did at the end.

Mississippi Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds, a former classroom teacher, principal and district superintendent, has often said that the No. 1 predictor of a students success is the quality and skill of the classroom teacher.

One day, perhaps, there will be an awakening to that simple truth.

In addition to adequate pay, the focus will shift to finding ways to increase a teacher's teaching skills supportively and to allow those not effective in helping children learn seek other career opportunities.

Perhaps we'll move away from tests, tests to test the tests and tests to test the test of the tests.

Believe it or not, that would be a positive step toward more learning.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at P.O. Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail post@vicksburg.com.

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