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Charges grow that schools too often teach to the test


RACINE, Wis. - One of the most entertaining of the Dr. Seuss stories concerns high-stakes school testing:

All the schools for miles around

Must take a special test.

To see who's learning such and such -

To see which school's the best.

If our small school does not do well,

Then it will be torn down,

And you will have to go to school

In dreary Flobbertown.

As usual, the good doctor was on the money. More states are using test results to reward teachers and schools with cash bonuses and threaten the poorly performing with state intervention.

But alarms are being sounded. Some experts say school curriculum is being narrowed to reading, writing and mathematics, the subjects most often tested, at the expense of science, social studies and the arts. And everywhere are charges that teachers are "teaching to the test." In a recent survey in North Carolina, 80 percent of teachers reported they devote a fifth of instructional time to test preparation.

Emphasis on reading increases in most states as the end-of-term testing approaches. The North Carolina survey found schools devoting an average of 401 minutes a week to reading, 292 to math and 99 to science.

"One teacher told us her school is giving almost no attention to science," said M. Gail Jones, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor of science education at a seminar here last week for education writers.

The much-heralded Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) came in for a particular drubbing. Linda M. McNeil, a professor and director of the Center for Education at Rice University, said coaching for the TAAS is "rampant in Texas," resulting in a "displacement and distortion" of curriculum. "We're so focused on the numbers," said McNeil, "that we've missed what's happening to the children."

What is happening, said McNeil, is that students read less prose in school. Instead, they read short, disconnected passages and answer multiple-choice questions about them in patterns similar to those on the TAAS test.

"The kids say you don't really have to read the passages," said McNeil. "They're taught to scan for a few key words."

The tests also stigmatize students who do poorly and are thus relegated forever to their states' dreary Flobbertowns. "In Texas," said McNeil, who aired her complaints on "60 Minutes" recently, "we have a two-tier system where poor kids are getting the worst education."

In schools with a large proportion of minorities, where McNeil conducted case studies, she found class time spent on filling in answer bubbles on sample test papers, learning to recognize "distracters" (obviously wrong) answers and chanting, "Three in a row? No, no, no!" (No self-respecting test maker would make "b" the correct choice on three consecutive test items.)

Another problem is what the tests test. The multiple-choice format used in Texas and most other states isn't measuring anything meaningful, said Clifford Hill, a researcher at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. "If ever there's a place you should not use multiple-choice tests, it's in fourth-grade reading," he said.

Hill, who has studied testing around the world, said the "right answer" on a multiple-choice test "calls for a relatively low-level operation. ... The multiple-choice test should go. It only came in this century for the ease of testing." (Maryland's performance tests require written responses ranging from a single sentence to a few paragraphs.) "A lot of kids who fail these tests can't read," Hill added, "but they get mixed in with kids who can read but don't know how to take the tests."

The scores give states something to brag about. In July, the respected RAND research organization placed Texas second among 44 states in a study of performance in the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress. That was enough for Laura Bush, wife of the presidential candidate, to declare at the Republican National Convention that her state was enjoying "some of the highest achievement gains in the country."

The state that outshone Texas? North Carolina.

By the way, thanks largely to the inimitable Miss Bonkers - a teacher who holds her pupils to the highest standards in Dr. Seuss' "Hooray For Diffendoofer Day!" - Diffendoofer School gets the highest scores and no one has to go to Flobbertown.

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