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Schools Go AYP Over Test

May 08, 2003|John Merrow | John Merrow, who reports on education for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and "Frontline," is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Just as many Americans have physical exams every year, public schools are about to undergo an "educational health exam," mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act.

This exam, called AYP for "adequate yearly progress," indicates what federal law now requires every public school to measure. And although the rest of the world frets about SARS, educators in public schools are even more scared of AYP -- and with good reason.

Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress will be identified as being "in need of improvement." Although the law never uses the word "failing," the media and educators have already adopted that adjective as shorthand for "in need of improvement."

Schools that fail to make AYP this time around -- it is an annual measurement -- must provide transportation for pupils who want to enroll in another public school. Fail again and schools must pay for "supplemental services," including tutoring. And the stakes only get higher.

Performance on machine-scored, multiple-choice tests in math and reading is the sole measure of AYP, but just improving an overall average score won't be enough to satisfy the federal government, which requires progress by all student subgroups -- including those of age, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. If any one group is not moving up, the school will be labeled "in need of improvement." In many areas, more than half of all schools are likely to fall under this category. That's why in schools in poor areas, test preparation (drill, drill, drill) now dominates the curriculum. Many of these schools have already suspended instruction in such "nonessential" subjects as art, music, physical education and foreign language in favor of practicing for the tests.

Holding schools accountable is good policy. AYP, however, may do more harm than good because it is narrowly conceived and poorly thought out. A careful comparison with an annual physical exam may be useful. Doctors gather information from at least three sources: observation, the patient's self-reported history and laboratory reports. Enough blood is withdrawn to allow for as many as five different analyses. From these "multiple measures," a physician makes a diagnosis. If a serious condition is suspected, more tests are ordered.

By contrast, schools will be judged on just one measure, scores on multiple-choice tests in math and language arts. That "snapshot" becomes the truth about student learning, and because teachers tend to teach what's being tested, the curriculum is narrowed. As everyone acknowledges, standardized tests have a sizable error range.

Unlike education, medicine accepts and adapts to instrument reliability. My doctor takes my blood pressure twice, for example, because he knows that the two readings will differ, perhaps by as much as 15%. If either measurement alarms him, he'll wait 10 minutes and take it again. He'd ask more questions and perform more tests to identify the problem precisely before making a judgment.

The results of an annual physical are filtered through the indispensable judgment of the physician. My doctor knows me and interprets the results in light of my history, my family background and other specific conditions. By contrast, teacher judgments have no role in determining AYP. One could argue that AYP tests are designed not to help students, teachers or schools but to catch them. It's a "gotcha game," not a process to improve educational health.

With my annual physical, I'd know the results within a few days. By contrast, schools won't receive AYP test results for months. By then students will have new teachers and may even be in different schools. To support the individual development of students, teachers need performance results immediately. Though the federal law imposes sanctions on schools failing to make AYP, it does not provide positive interventions early on. Apparently, moving from diagnosis to treatment is not a priority.

Finally, consider how AYP and doctors approach sampling. AYP requires schools to test 95% of students in grades three to eight in math and language arts. This is unnecessary, time-consuming and expensive. Just as pollsters measure just about anything by drawing a representative sample (and just as my doctor draws a sample of my blood rather than all of it), so too can the educational health of a school be accurately measured by testing just a small portion of the student body. But the Bush administration insists on testing everyone. It doesn't trust samples, at least not in schools.

The idea of holding schools accountable is long overdue. For years those in charge of public education have been willing to leave too many children behind. Now they're going to have to scramble to do a better job. But while they're at it, they ought to find better ways to measure what they do.

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