Eliminate tests' double standards
August 14, 2003
Opinion Column By John Merrow
Testing has come to all three levels of education. Many states require high
school seniors to pass a test to graduate. Most new teachers have to pass tests
to qualify for their jobs. And now Massachusetts and a handful of other states
expect principals and superintendents to pass an exam as well.
In short, conditions are ripe for an educational ''perfect storm'': widespread
failure at all levels. In fact, this just happened in a small Northeastern city.
The aftershocks illustrate the lengths politicians and educators will go to
rationalize away the problems that mire the testing movement and victimize the
students these tests are intended to help.
Here's a multiple-choice question: What happens when the school superintendent,
20 certified teachers and 41% of high school seniors fail tests they're required
to pass? (In the superintendent's case, it's the third time he has failed the
basic literacy test.)
A. No one is punished. All receive extra support before the retest.
B. Everyone suffers. The seniors don't graduate on time, and the adults are
suspended without pay until they pass their tests.
C. The students don't graduate, but the educators keep their jobs.
D. The students and teachers are punished, but the superintendent is praised by
his state's governor and receives a 3% raise.
Those who selected ''C'' have a grasp of the system; they know there's often a
double standard for kids and adults. But ''D'' is the correct answer, because
Lawrence, Mass., where this situation is unfolding, operates on a different
double standard: Punish students and teachers, but reward leaders.
At an Aug. 4 news conference, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney praised Lawrence
School Superintendent Wilfredo T. Laboy, adding, ''I'm not sure
the superintendent of schools is in the same level of importance to me in terms
of English skills as are the teachers in the classroom teaching our kids.''
But the 1998 state law doesn't distinguish between teachers and educational
administrators. According to the state education department's Web site, the
purpose of testing is ''to demonstrate . . . skills necessary for an educator in
Massachusetts public schools and for communication between school,
parents/guardians, and others in the school community.''
The double standard applies to retest opportunities as well. It's solely up to
the students to apply to retake the graduation test; all responsibility for
rests on their shoulders. Teachers who received failing scores but no feedback
about specific areas of weakness will be offered language lessons next year,
when they'll have another chance to get back in the classroom. If they fail
again, they're out of a job. Even if they pass, they won't get their jobs
back unless there's a vacancy. (Massachusetts does grant waivers to uncertified
teachers who fail the test, allowing them to keep teaching.)
Superintendent Laboy, however, has until the end of December to pass the test he
has failed three times. Unlike the teachers, he has been given a detailed
analysis of where he went wrong, and he will get tutoring from some of his
employees. And if he fails a fourth time, he'll probably get a state waiver --
despite the fact that the state statute makes it clear that anyone failing once
can't stay on the job without a waiver.
As for Laboy, he's not talking to reporters anymore, but he did tell The
Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, which reported the story first, that the test has little
''It bothers me because I'm trying to understand the congruence of what I do
here every day and this stupid test,'' Laboy said. ''I didn't meet the bar. But
I think truly and honestly it has no relevancy to what I do every day. The
fruits of my labor speak greater than not passing a test.''
If Laboy also has any doubts about suspending employees without pay for failing
to meet state requirements while he continues on salary, or about the
relevance of the graduation test to the real world students live in, the
newspaper did not report them.
Other leaders also pledged their support of Laboy. ''I judge him based on how
well our kids are doing in the schools,'' Lawrence Mayor and School
Committee Chairman Michael J. Sullivan told the Boston Herald. ''I will stay the
course with him because he's doing an incredible job for the kids.''
Incredible, indeed: Massachusetts' education department reports that 254 of 430
Lawrence seniors passed the state exam this year. That's a graduation
rate of 59% -- or a failure rate of 41%. Dig deeper, and it gets worse: In ninth
grade, the Lawrence class of 2003 had 917 students, meaning more than half
fizzled out along the way to graduation. Any way the data's sliced, Lawrence has
the state's lowest pass rate.
The system should extend the same support to struggling students that it does to
struggling principals, including pointing out areas of weakness and offering
additional help. That way, students would feel as welcome to stay in school as
Obviously, the need extends beyond Lawrence. The introduction of high-stakes
tests coincides with reports of high dropout rates. For example, recent reports
indicate that thousands of ninth graders have disappeared from school rolls in
Houston, Oakland, central Florida, Richmond, Va., and New York City. Some
students drop out rather than fail the tests, and others are ''encouraged'' to
drop out by educators in the belief that ''pushing out'' these
students will protect the school's pass rate and their own reputations. Whether
these youngsters are called ''dropouts'' or ''pushouts,'' school districts
shouldn't be allowed to get away with hiding their failures. Doing so subverts
the original logic behind all testing -- for students and superintendents.
When three-quarters of a ninth-grade class doesn't graduate from high school,
something is wrong with the system -- not the kids.
John Merrow, who reports on education for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and
Frontline, is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for
the Advancement of Teaching at Stanford.