Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias Len Griffith has years of experience as guidance counselor and standardized test coordinator for the Vermillion School District.

He knows the "right" way to administer the tests and interpret their results.

He has no problem with South Dakota continuing to require its elementary and high school students to take the tests. He is bothered, however, by a noticeable shift in the way the state is using the test results.

This fall, the performance of South Dakota students on standardized tests received added attention when Gov. William Janklow indicated he would support giving funding bonuses to school districts with students that perform well on standardized tests. He also suggested if schools don't improve, the state might seek authority to hire and fire administrators, hire outside agencies to run schools that don't change and use state aid to reward or penalize performance.

Naturally, all sorts of finger-pointing and gesturing have taken place since the governor made those remarks. Some say the governor has every right to expect schools that spend public tax dollars to be accountable. Others say that the governor's approach, besides being caustic and abrasive, will simply encourage schools to teach kids how not to fail at taking tests. In the end, their education won't really matter. The only thing that will be important is our kids' SAT scores.

The governor will give his address on the proposed fiscal year 2001 budget for state government on Dec. 7. After his remarks of this fall, no doubt people who are in the business of educating our young people will be listening to hear how education fits into his budget plans.

We have no doubt that Janklow knew that not all South Dakotans would be happy with him after he floated the idea of rewarding school districts financially based on student test scores.

There is nothing wrong with the governor wanting schools to be accountable. That's certainly a goal worth striving for. But Janklow's remarks cut both ways. They force taxpayers to ask: Has the state of South Dakota been accountable?

Some experts say that accountability has been a one-sided affair across the nation with states failing to live up to their end of the bargain.

"There has been a tendency to think of accountability as hierarchical, one-way accountability," said Peggy McMullen, the project director of the Tools for Accountability Project at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, based in Providence, RI.

"It's our view that we're all accountable for student learning, and that means we all have to take our part of the responsibility."

At the state level, that might mean providing adequate operating funds for schools, ensuring that they're staffed by qualified teachers, and setting aside money to repair crumbling buildings.

"Accountability is a big word, and in many ways, it's a cop-out," argues Theodore R. Sizer, the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a co-director of a charter school in Massachusetts. "There's a lot of evidence that there are some very difficult things that need to be done in education, and rather than do them, people say: 'Well, let's test the kids again. Or let's test the teachers.'"

He believes accountability needs to be more broadly defined. "Everybody should be accountable, starting with the testers, starting with the governor, starting with those who are responsible for the funding systems," he said. "The accountability is very narrowly focused in most states. It avoids the people who hold the power."

This fall, the governor released a list that ranked the state's schools districts based on their test scores. Many other states use a similar approach of determining school accountability primarily with a statistical exercise. They reduce their ultimate judgment about a school to a single numerical index. Such indices provide the appearance of complete objectivity. But even determining which factors go into the calculations is an exercise in human judgment.

Such indices ignore the distinctive qualities and circumstances of individual schools. They don't differentiate between a school that has no idea of how to improve and one that is struggling but getting better. In addition, such statistics may not give schools enough guidance about what they need to change to improve.

New Mexico and Rhode Island are among the states that have tried to remedy such shortcomings by combining a statistical profile of a school's performance with an on-site visit by a team of educators and others to examine school practices.

Others worry that, when push comes to shove, states will back down from the threat of attaching real consequences to student performance. "I know of no place that's able to manifest both high standards and serious consequences," says Paul G. LeMahieu, the state schools chief in Hawaii. "Every time you get serious about your consequences, you start rethinking your standards."

Arkansas dropped a mandate that students pass a new high school exit test to graduate after too many students failed the exams. Faced with the choice of penalizing 22 Michigan schools with consistently low performance, state Superintendent Arthur E. Ellis backed off and opted instead to give the schools the expert help they needed to shape up.

Next fall, the governor may again release a ranking of South Dakota school districts based on test scores. But South Dakota schools deserve better than that. Many of the state's school districts struggle year to year financially. It's a sure bet that their response to threats of funding cuts will be less than warm.

And no matter how our hard our schools try, a group of districts will score at the bottom of the list. If we respond by withholding funds from them, aren't we simply ensuring that, based on the next round of standardized tests, they will be defined as failures?

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