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Ventura County Perspective

Concern Over High School Test Scores Is Premature

Reforms in the lower grades have had no chance to benefit upper-level students, young people who were promoted regardless of their skills.

August 13, 2000|JANE SWEETLAND | Jane Sweetland lives in Camarillo and has taught English in the Simi Valley, Pleasant Valley and Oxnard Union school districts

There is much hand wringing going on over the failure of high school students to match the strides in standardized testing made by their counterparts in elementary school.

It is not, however, much of a mystery to those on the front lines.

Ask any high school teacher and he or she will tell you: The kids who are unable to achieve at grade level started on the slippery slope to failure in first grade. As it says so tersely on the report card, they "lack the necessary skills" to succeed. Until recently, however, lacking the necessary skills did not mean they lacked momentum to move to the next grade level.

In my sophomore English classes, I had students who could read and comprehend at a third-grade level while others in the class of 38 were at a 12th-grade level. I had 55 minutes a day to teach all of these students reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary and literary analysis. With four English classes, I had 144 students.

When it was clear my standard English students could not read John Steinbeck's novel "Of Mice and Men," I read it to them. Some of my college prep students had not learned the basic skills necessary to write a coherent essay that would meet standards set for the middle school level. Most of my students did not read for pleasure--ever. Some had never been to a public library. Most managed to fit hours of TV into their schedules but couldn't find the time to read for 20 minutes a day.

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When the bell rang after class, students would file out to social studies or science or physical education while I prepared for the next wave of English students, feeling a sense of abject failure. I felt overwhelmed--asked to teach too much in too little time to too many students who had too many varying needs.

Theoretically, English skills are reinforced in other classes, but teaching the specific skills measured by standardized testing remains the domain of the English teacher. Even if all students enter a class with grade-appropriate skills, the English curriculum is daunting. The state of California expects that "average" high school students will read 25 books per year, and the Goals 2000 program asks teachers to have students write eight essays a year.

Besides the scope of the curriculum and the number of students high school teachers have to deal with, there is a wide range of abilities in any class. If a teacher focuses on the high end, she will lose the child struggling to comprehend the words on a literal level. If she stays too long on the literal level, those reading at a grade level and beyond will be bored to tears.

Knowing the ability of the individuals in a class is crucial because it not only allows a teacher to figure out where to begin teaching, it allows her to feel modicum of success if the student moves forward under her tutelage. Although I could not expect my third-grade-level readers, for example, to achieve 10th-grade level in a single year, I would be quite delighted if they moved to a fourth-grade or--let's be bold--even fifth-grade level. On the other end of the spectrum, I would hope that my high-end learners remained challenged.

There are teachers at the high school level who give heart and soul to the profession and to the kids, day after day. I am deeply impressed with the excellence and commitment of many teachers with whom I have worked in the last 10 years in Ventura County.

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But it is foolish to assume that the momentum achieved by the changes in the system in the lower grades could possibly have reached high school this year. In seven years, that wave of students who benefited from smaller class sizes and mandatory retention in elementary school will reach high school. They are the students the public should expect to consistently achieve grade-level results.

Maybe in the next few years, parents will turn off the TV long enough to wonder if they have a part in this failure. Until then, the high schools will reverberate with the sound of belated modifications being made in a system that has failed to teach these children since they left first grade in the early '90s.

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