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Published: Monday, 12/25/2000

Back to school on tests

Governor Taft scored major points with many of Ohio's parents, students, and teachers when he endorsed revamping the state proficiency tests and ditching the retention of fourth graders who don't pass a reading test.

Yet Mr. Taft will find their affection fleeting if the suggestions from the Governor's Commission for Student Success are implemented and fail.

On balance, it's a chance worth taking, as long as the need for school accountability is not abandoned.

The 33-member commission's advice to abolish the Fourth-Grade Reading Guarantee - a three-year-old law that would make students who fail a fourth-grade proficiency reading test repeat that grade - also has the support of school administrators, who observe that students who fail the test need assistance, not necessarily retention. Toledo School Board Vice President Peter Silverman describes the measure as harsh and says the law shouldn't be a reflection of the criminal justice system, where, “If someone violates it, they go to prison.”

Although the law permitted a reprieve for fourth graders who typically perform well in school but fail the reading test, it has come under fire because it allowed for a single tool to determine whether a student should move forward or be retained. That's a valid concern.

The panel's goal is not to eliminate testing. Schools must be held accountable, and testing measures accountability. The panel suggests replacing proficiency tests - now given in grades four, six, nine, and 12 - with achievement tests. Under its plan, third graders would have to pass a reading test; fourth graders, writing and math tests; fifth graders, science and social studies tests, and seventh graders would have to pass tests in all five subjects. High school students could opt to take a new 10th-grade test or six of 12 newly developed “end of course” exams.

Proficiency test critics say they disrupt classroom instruction and that they test students on material that some students have not yet been taught. The panel appears more intent on getting help for students rather than punishing them, which is unfortunately how many view proficiency exams. Also, its idea for annual diagnostic tests for grades K-8 will better track student successes and weaknesses.

It doesn't appear that the commission's idea for two half grades, 4.5 and 8.5, made the list of recommendations the governor received, and it's probably just as well.

But the achievement tests will also be condemned if schools' curricula are not aligned with those tests. To keep detractors from vilifying those tests, too, there must be standards and curriculum for each grade.

Reaching a firm objective, at least in education, will always be a subjective exercise. But we have to keep trying.



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