Upping standards wasn't meant to be easy

Denver Post

By Al Knight

Mar. 4 - Denver Post series on the Colorado Student Assessment Program has provided a splendid Aopportunity for defenders and opponents of the state-mandated testing program to have their say.

Not surprisingly, opponents find the tests too tough and argue that they distract teachers and administrators and consume too much time and cost too much money. The tests, these critics say, are easy for some students but very difficult for others and don't prove much. Because the results of the annual tests have become increasingly well-publicized, critics say they may actually encourage cheating by students and teachers. Finally, it is said they shouldn't be used as a measure by which to punish particular low-performing school districts.

Support for this view can supposedly be found in the fact that a number of adults (including a local newspaper columnist) recently took the test and didn't do at all well in the 8th-grade math portion.

A careful examination of the test questions, however, shows that the poor performance of the adults may be traceable to something other than tough questions. The adults, to put it politely, may simply have been poorly educated in math or have run into memory problems. There is surely nothing in the questions themselves that couldn't reasonably be taught to, and learned by, most 8th graders.

In any case, worries about fraud, about time and resources and about how selected adults fare, are all quite beside the point. These concerns were anticipated at the time the state started developing the student assessments in the mid-1990s.

The choice before the Legislature then and the choice before it now is really quite simple. Does the state wish to continue its 10-year effort to raise publicschool performance standards

If it does, it must now face the inevitable question of what to do when a particular school or a particular district fail to meet those standards.

Fortunately, this question has been asked and answered in other states and all that Colorado needs to do is learn from the experience of those states.

Texas, where Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush is governor, has already passed a law that can be a model for Colorado. Bush is so sure of the state's overall success that he has made the Texas program a key part of his claim that he is a reformer who can produce results nationwide. Were he to win the presidency, the Texas model of educational reform would be peddled throughout the nation.

The key to the Texas system is to tie the student assessment program to a program that would allow the state to intervene in those schools or school districts where student performance is consistently low. A proposal to do precisely that is now before the Colorado General Assembly. Gov. Bill Owens wants to do in Colorado what is already being done in Texas and turn over poorly performing schools to new managers and new faculty.

There are people, of course, who find this prospect alarming. Before such action is taken, these folks want assurance that "different learning environments" are taken into account or that the school be given an opportunity to demonstrate its success by different measures.

The Texas experience provides a way to resolve this anxiety. A Fort Worth school that was turned over to new contractors took just two years to go from a low-performing to an exemplary rating.

Whether Colorado could one day experience a similar public-school turnaround won't be known for a while since Colorado lags Texas in the use of state assessments. It won't be known at all, of course, unless the Legislature takes the next step and both expands the scope and frequency of the state assessments and puts some teeth in the enforcement section.

Legislators who passed the original legislation on state-mandated assessments knew that this day was coming. Threats of action and unwanted publicity about low-performing schools can only go so far. Sooner or later the state must decide what do when schools fail.

The experience in Texas shows that effective state action can produce rapid academic improvement.

That fact has to be classed as good news even by those who mistakenly believe the state assessments are too hard or too unreliable.

Al Knight is a Denver Post columnist and editorial writer.



This Page was created on 12th July, 2000