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Published: Thursday, 11/30/2000

Panel gives proficiency tests an `F'

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Ohio should phase out the existing proficiency tests and replace them with new ones based on detailed academic standards, a commission appointed by Governor Taft said in a draft report released yesterday.

The 33-member commission stressed that its recommendations won't be final until Dec. 14, and they hinge on approval from either the state Board of Education or the General Assembly.

But the commission debated major changes to the state's academic standards and proficiency testing program, which is administered in the 4th, 6th, 9th, and 12th grades.

The commission is recommending that the state halt the fourth-grade proficiency test - a five-part test that students take in five days.

Instead, students would be tested in the third grade on reading; by the end of fourth grade on writing and basic math; and by the end of fifth grade on science and social studies - the new name for the citizenship section of the proficiency test.

“We decided to sequence the tests and reduce the high stress of a high-stakes test,” said commission member Raymond Fitz, president of the University of Dayton.

Students who don't pass the third-grade reading test would get extra help in fourth grade. If they can't pass the third-grade test by the end of fourth grade, they would be required to go to summer school.

“If they still don't pass the test, they will go into `grade 4.5' - an alternative program that blends fourth and fifth-grade subject matter, with a strong emphasis on reading. They will remain in this program until they have passed the third grade reading test,” the draft report says.

In addition, the commission has proposed that the state require school districts to give “diagnostic” tests in each grade from kindergarten through 8 in key subjects.

A diagnostic test is designed to examine strengths and weaknesses of a student; results are shared with parents and teachers.

School districts would be required to give extra help to students who “perform below expected levels” on the diagnostic tests. The scores would not be reported to the state.

Kay Shrewsbery, a Toledo Public Schools teacher and commission member, said the new testing system would be more “student-friendly.”

“We want the new assessments as tools that allow us to measure student growth and provide for appropriate instruction, as opposed to a test that is used to say, `You didn't do it,'” she said.

Although districts would not be required to use the state “diagnostic” tests, they would have to use local funds if they chose another test.

Students would be required to take a seventh-grade proficiency test in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. Students who can't pass one or more tests by the end of eighth grade would go into an alternative program with a special emphasis on English and math.

State Sen. C.J. Prentiss (D., Cleveland) said she was struggling with the issue of whether the state would be “tracking” students by placing them in alternative programs.

High school students would have a choice of which tests they would have to pass to get their diploma: the new 10th grade test starting in 2004-2005, or passing at least six of 12 new “end-of-course” exams that the state would develop.

The panel is recommending that the state develop standards on what students should know and be able to do by the end of grades 3, 5, 8, and 12. State officials have drafted standards for math and English, and should move forward with science, social studies, and technology, the commission says.

Plans call for the state to develop grade-by-grade curriculum guidelines, but it would not make any curriculum mandatory.

“We want to give flexibility to districts,” said Susan Tave Zelman, state superintendent of public instruction.

The draft report does not include any timetable or estimate on how much the proposals would cost, but some commission members said it would take four to 10 years to phase in new proficiency tests and develop “diagnostic tests.”

“It would take less than a bright person to understand that many of the things we're recommending will take extended resources,” said commission chairman Bill Patient, the retired chairman of the Geon Co. of Shaker Heights.

Governor Taft, who appointed the commission in April to “focus on ways to improve learning and achievement,” said he won't judge any of the proposals until he gets the report Dec. 14.

“This is a very important undertaking for the future of education in the state; I believe every bit as important as the school-funding issues,” he said.



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