Teaching the test

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Standardized testing hasn’t always been as pivotal to public education as it is today. Jim Masters, director of high schools in the Franklin County system, told The State Journal’s Katheran Wasson that he gave little thought to college-entrance exams as a teenager and didn’t sign up to take the ACT until a few weeks beforehand.

Hardly anyone can shrug off tests anymore. In addition to ACT and other college-entrance examinations – now including some who don’t even plan to attend college – students have to show their stuff on academic achivement tests from primary school through high school. Some teachers still sniff at “teaching the test,” but their objections are waning. If teachers don’t teach the test, even their better students may get disappointing scores, which eventually will reflect unfavorably on the educators themselves.

In places, there’s much more at stake than student and teacher egos. Chicago teachers went on strike over a variety of issues, including job security, salary and benefits, but one of the union’s biggest beefs was that up to 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation had to be based on how students score on standardized testing. Teachers could be fired if test performance failed to measure up.

No one so far is threatening to can teachers around here because of low student test scores, but they’re under pressure, too, because high schools that shine in preparing young people for college qualify for rewards. Both local systems need to improve because this year just 15 percent of county graduates and 16 percent of city graduates met the national college-readiness benchmarks in English, math, reading and science. Benchmark-level scores theoretically give test takers an edge on becoming at least B or C students in college.

Kentucky and other states have steadily boosted teacher pay in recent decades, hoping to improve student performance. While gains have been made, there have also been disappointments.

Paying teachers $76,000 a year – the current Chicago average – does not guarantee students will achieve the desired proficiency. Union members who work in that big city’s poor and violent neighborhoods face a special challenge raising test scores in the populations they serve. Teacher quality does matter, but some things are beyond teachers’ control.

Franklin County schools are encouraging earlier preparation for testing, starting in elementary and middle school (although high schoolers who fall short of the benchmarks do have a second chance to avoid remedial work in college if they subsequently do better on alternative tests). Teachers in the city system have begun giving tests and quizzes similar to the ACT in format so their classes become more familiar with the routine.

Parental involvement has always been vital to education, and Masters hopes to step it up in county schools through video aids parents can use to prepare their children for the ACT at home. But how many will actually use them?

Student/parent apathy isn’t exclusive to big-city slums. Even in a relatively affluent community like Frankfort, learning runs a gauntlet of distractions (e.g. TV and the Internet) and unstable home life is often a major hindrance. The campaign to raise test scores will have to extend well beyond the classroom.

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