Student Failure Causes States To Retool Testing Programs

Jacques Steinberg
New York Times
Friday, December 22, 2000, FRONT PAGE

MESA, Ariz.---Tammy Ho is not used to failing.

The daughter of two engineers, she is ranked 21st in the 819-member junior class at Dobson High School, where nearly everyone goes on to college.

So Tammy was jarred when she failed the state's new high school mathematics exam, which all 10th graders took last spring with the understanding that they would need to pass it at some point before they could graduate.

Tammy had plenty of company: 70 percent of the sophomores at her school, in this middle-class suburb of Phoenix, also failed. Statewide, the failure rate was 84 percent.

As Tammy, an aspiring doctor, put it, "I don't believe there's any correlation between that test and what I do in class."

The State of Arizona now, reluctantly, agrees.

Rocked by two straight years of widespread failure (88 percent of the sophomores failed the math test the previous spring, in a pilot run), state education officials have concluded that the test is too hard and have absolved any class graduating before 2004, at the earliest, of having to pass it.

In retrenching on that test, and on a writing exam where scores were only marginally better, Arizona, too, has company: nearly a third of the 23 other states that have drafted high-stakes graduation exams in recent years are scaling back or slowing their initial efforts. They are California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Delaware, Ohio, Wisconsin and Alaska.

Rattled by scores that sometimes mirror Arizona's, or unnerved by how the Arizona results appear from afar, these states have winnowed material to be tested, lowered passing grades or delayed the effective dates of those exams until as late as 2007, when many of the lawmakers responsible will be out of office.

Yet, in a push-and-pull that is not unusual in education politics, the states are expecting George W. Bush to ask Congress to fulfill a high-profile campaign promise: to require that every student in the third through eighth grades be assessed annually in mathematics and reading, on tests that each state would design and score.

Indeed, the superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, Lisa Graham Keegan, who has led the state's testing effort, is said to be among the leading candidates for Mr. Bush'ssecretary of education.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, an organization that has been critical of exit tests as a criterion for promotion or graduation, said: "The posturing about education reform is always the easy part, particularly if you have magic-bullet solutions like, 'If we raise the bar, kids will jump over it.' But I think we're at one of those tipping points where some politicians are stepping back from the brink."

States began erecting gates through which all graduates must pass in response to parents and business leaders, who regularly express frustration with how little students know and can do. Opinion surveys often find widespread support for high standards and for some mechanism that holds students to them.

But the experiences of Arizona and other states have proved sobering for those who would rely almost exclusively on the writing and scoring of new tests to assuage voters' concerns about education.

Among those states watching, and being watched, is New York, where last year's seniors were the first required to pass a Regents exam in English. Ninety- seven percent did so, but only after the State Board of Regents temporarily lowered the passing grade to 55, from 65. The passing grade in English, and on a math test required starting this year, will be raised to 65 in 2004.

In Alaska last spring, two of every three high school sophomores failed a new state math test that they will ultimately have to pass to graduate. Armed with estimates that at least one-third of that class would still fail the test even after several tries in subsequent grades, the State Board of Education asked the Legislature on Dec. 9 to put off the requirement until the class of 2006.

California is holding to its schedule of imposing graduation exams in math and English on the class of 2004. But on Dec. 7, the State Board of Education approved a recommendation from Gov. Gray Davis to cut the three-and-a-half-hour math exam by as much as an hour, and to delete questions on the most advanced concepts in algebra, like quadratic equations and functions. "Based on field tests, the general population of current California students did not do well in items on those topics," said Robert Anderson, the California official overseeing the exit exams.

And in Maryland, where high school exams have been under discussion since 1992, state officials have put off five new exams -- in English, algebra, geometry, government and biology -- from the class of 2005 to the class of 2007.

"We saw a lot of potential train wrecks down the road in states where people set very high standards and didn't put in the support system to help schools get there," said Ronald Peiffer, a state education spokesman.

One of those states, he said, was Arizona.

Not only did Arizona education officials put material on the 10th-grade math exam, including some calculus and trigonometry, that most students would not be taught until 12th grade, if ever, they also provided districts no extra money to prepare for the test and by most accounts did not do enough to enlist the support of teachers and principals.

"I was wrong," Ms. Keegan, a speech pathologist first elected superintendent of public instruction in 1994, said in an interview. "But if we're going to shoot wrong, I want to shoot too high and then moderate. There's no sin in that."

Sara Meyer, the chairwoman of the math department here at Dobson High, an 84-acre campus of stucco buildings, said she was one of many teachers who supported the idea of a high school exit exam. Where the state erred, Ms. Meyer said, was in devising a test for all students that would have been better used to select students for honors. "We have many good citizens who do excellent work in our society that wouldn't be able to pass a college-prep math test, and really don't need to," she said.

The problems with the exam, the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, can be traced to the mid-1990's, when committees of teachers appointed by state education officials began writing standards -- expectations of what students should know.

The math committee, creating a model curriculum for the state's students that would challenge even the most gifted, included rarefied concepts like matrices and algorithms, as well as foundations of high school math like solving algebraic equations and reading graphs.

But David M. Smith, a mathematics teacher who served on a subsequent state committee, which translated the standards into exam questions, said there was always a basic flaw: the earlier committee that wrote the standards was not told until later that the State Board of Education would consider all the concepts in that curriculum fair game on tests.

"We were told to write questions to the standards," said Mr. Smith, who has been teaching math for 28 years. "We protested the difficulty of the standards at every step, but we were told that they couldn't be changed."

In October 1997, the state identified the class of 2001 -- the class that was in ninth grade at the time -- as the first class that would be required to pass the math test, as well as tests in reading and writing. But a year later, the effort was sufficiently behind that the class of 2001 was off the hook, and the class of 2002 was told it would be the first.

Many school districts refused to take the approaching exams seriously, recalling that in the early 1990's the state had introduced a precursor to AIMS, called ASAP (Arizona Student Assessment Program), standardized tests that used a common subject like the rain forest as grist for reading, math and writing questions. Soon after her 1994 election, Ms. Keegan killed the program, saying its value was amorphous.

In the spring of 1999, the class of 2001 sat for the exams as a pilot, and the results on the math exam were disastrous (12 percent passed), with the writing only somewhat better (28 percent passed). A more encouraging 61 percent passed the reading exam on the first try.

The outcry was swift, but Ms. Keegan insisted that every student could meet the challenge. Before the exams taken last spring by the class of 2002 were even graded, however, she changed course, appointing another panel of math teachers to delete from the test those concepts that they considered too advanced, including analysis of matrices and writing of algorithms.

In July, the State Board of Education put off the math requirement until the class of 2004 at the earliest.

And after the second round of failing test scores (16 percent passed the math, 33 percent passed the writing) were released this fall, Ms. Keegan pulled back again. She announced that she would ask all district superintendents how many years they thought it might take to prepare students for the tests and how those tests might be changed.

Ashley Rogers, 16, a junior at Dobson who passed the math, reading and writing exams, has no doubt that scores will eventually improve, but to what end?

"Teachers might teach to the test, but leave out the creativity and beauty of learning," she said. "It'll just be a facade to reassure the public that education in Arizona is going up."