High-stakes testing attracts critics, from high and low

by Jordan Green

For Steve Flynn’s daughter, a third grader at Peeler Elementary in Greensboro, the end-of-grade tests mandated by the state of North Carolina this spring loom as cause for anxiety.

In January she was asked to write a list of the things she liked best about the past year. One of her responses was the following: ‘“That we did not have to take the EOG.’”

‘“This sends chills down my back,’” Flynn, a doctoral student at UNCG, wrote in an e-mail. ‘“My daughter ostensibly attends an ‘open’ school, and yet she’s picked up sufficient messages to fear the dreaded upcoming EOGs.’”

The drive to hold schools accountable according to student performance in standardized tests focused on basic literacy and arithmetic ability provided a successful campaign issue for George W. Bush, helping him win the White House in 2000 and pass the No Child Left Behind Act two years later.

Now some parents like Flynn, along with a growing number of teachers, are voicing their misgivings about federal and state-mandated testing rules that rigorously measure student achievement, sanction schools for performing poorly and encourage teachers to customize instruction to the demands of the tests. North Carolina stood at the vanguard of the testing movement even before Bush was first elected, but now the pendulum of public opinion, if not educational policy, may be swinging in the opposite direction.

Peeler Elementary, a struggling school that emphasizes the performing arts and follows John Dewey’s open education model of encouraging children to learn through their own initiative, has labored to maintain its autonomy in the face of the rigorous testing requirements. After failing to meet the federal government’s adequate yearly progress goals last year, the school faces pressure to compromise its vision.

‘“The principal said, ‘We’re gonna align the curriculum to the testing,”” Flynn said. ‘“The principals have always managed to hold off the beast’…. A lot of the testing movement is not based on evidence that it works, but on the idea that all education must be measured. It’s a corporate style of education.’”

Flynn met with seven other Peeler Elementary parents, including two who hold official positions on the school’s parent teacher association, on a recent Sunday afternoon to discuss the possibility of organizing opposition to standardized testing. Flynn took pains to point out that he holds the school’s principal, Denise Francisco, in high regard and respects Grier as an administrator.

Flynn and other parents point to a Canadian education consultant named Michael Fullan, whose writings have received lavish praise from some quarters, as a questionable guru to whom Grier turned for help in delivering the results demanded by the high-stakes testing requirements.

The educational model advocated by Fullan, a professor at the University of Toronto, emphasizes developing leadership teams among teachers, aligning instruction to standardized tests and increasing students’ competence at basic literacy and arithmetic.

A program designed for Guilford County Schools by Fullan called School Teams Achieving Results for Students, or STARS, is now in its third year. Guilford County Schools and Chicago Public Schools constitute Fullan’s two pilot projects in the United States. Four other high-profile local education authorities in the Anglophone world have tapped his expertise: Edmonton, York and Toronto in Canada; and Bristol in England.

The STARS program has received mixed reviews among Guilford County teachers and Fullan’s methods have come under attack from one former colleague, but Grier has committed to staying the course, and is negotiating with a local foundation for additional funding after the program’s initial two-year trial period elapsed in December 2005, according to a district official.

In a January 2003 district newsletter Grier trumpeted Fullan’s book, Change Forces With a Vengeance, enthusing that ‘“Fullan claims that the only measure that counts at the end of the day is whether the gap between high and low performers is explicitly reduced. He talks about the importance of teachers working together, with a sense of collective moral purpose, to eliminate the classroom-to-classroom variation in student performance that exists in many schools.’”

Ten months later the Canadian educator addressed the Guilford County School Board and Grier announced that Fullan would work with the district as a consultant. The News & Record reported at the time that the district received a $500,000 grant from the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation to pay for the project.

An early and vocal critic of the program was Loretta Jennings, then president of the local teachers union known as the Guilford County Association of Educators and now the incoming president of the NC Association of Educators’ retiree division. Jennings said she believes the money would have been better spent on additional teaching assistants, and that the program has undermined collegiality among teachers and emphasized the wrong values.

‘“Individual teachers are chosen to serve as support [in the STARS program],’” she said. ‘“Sometimes that pits colleagues against colleagues. When you set up a group to come in and monitor you, I think it interferes with a cooperative relationship.

‘“Who wants to teach the lower achiever?’” she added. ‘“Who wants to teach a slow learner? I’m being judged by the performance of my students and not all students perform the same. Doctor Grier’s priorities are test scores ‘— give me a break. When you’re in a classroom, your priorities are healthy children. I want healthy, happy children, not children who are stressed because of their test scores.’”

Fullan and two other colleagues boasted of some successes and outlined their agenda for their US pilot programs in an April 2004 article published in the journal Education Leadership called ‘“New Lessons for Districtwide Reform.’”

Among those successes, they contended that literacy increased by 9 percent in four years in Toronto; student results on province-wide tests jumped 12 percent over four years in Edmonton; and in England the share of 11 year olds who achieved proficiency in literacy and mathematics climbed from 63 percent to 75 percent in 2001.

That month Fullan was appointed special advisor to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, and asked to advise school boards across the province on how to increase their students’ literacy and arithmetic competency.

Some of the advice provided by Fullan and his colleagues resonates with a common-sense ring: put in place effective district-level leadership and clearly communicate goals to the system’s rank and file. Other parts sound like metaphorical abstraction to the lay reader: ‘“In his discussion of appropriate roles in organizations, [J.] Collins (2001) talks about getting the right people into the right seats on the bus. Equally important, we argue, is making sure that the organization has the right bus in the first place ‘—’ that is, the right structure for getting the job done.’”

Other components of the Fullan program emphasize professional rigor, such as ‘“productive conflict’” and ‘“a demanding culture.’” Still other components stress investment, with calls for financial support from outside foundations and state-level reforms to reinforce those made at the district level.

The second year of Guilford County Schools’ STARS program brought disappointment, with only 62 of the district’s 107 schools meeting expected performance goals set by the state. In contrast, 90 percent of the district’s school’s met the state standards in the previous two years.

‘“We were extremely disappointed with the results and I take our lack of improvement personally,’” Grier wrote in the district newsletter in August 2005.

Then he played down the schools’ poor marks by suggesting the district shouldn’t expect gains in the short term anyway.

‘“We expected a small dip in scores as we are in the second year of implementing Michael Fullan led initiatives, which include teachers using cooperative learning and graphic organizers in their classes,’” Grier wrote. ‘“It is normal to see flat or slightly increasing achievement during the first several years of a major reform initiative before marked improvement is noted.’”

The superintendent promised the district would reassess a policy of flexibility toward its schools, and would have to balance bottom-up ‘“site-based decision making’” with ‘“top-down leadership and direction.’”

Lillie Cox, Guilford County Schools’ director of organizational development, said the district is currently conducting a survey to determine what the STARS teams, which comprise about a dozen teachers at each school, are doing well and in what areas they could improve. She said the state tests should not reflect poorly on the Fullan model.

‘“I don’t think you can connect EOG scores to one initiative,’” she said. ‘“We certainly do believe our STARS teams are successful through their four areas of focus.’”

She listed those areas as encouraging students to organize information so they could reference it, having students work together in small groups, assessing students’ learning in a methodical fashion, and using what students currently know as a point of departure in instruction.

Two months after Guilford County Schools’ disappointing test scores were made public, Fullan came under withering criticism for his influence over the province of Ontario’s educational system by a former writing partner. Ontario’s schools were losing their edge by emulating Britain’s educational system, wrote Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink in the Toronto Star in October 2005.

‘“The [British strategy’s] overemphasis on the old basics of literacy and numeracy has narrowed the curriculum and short-changed British students on the new basics which they also need to compete in a dynamic knowledge economy: creativity, teamwork, multiliteracies (oral, written and visual), environmental responsibility and ability to use modern technologies.

‘“Government ministers and system leaders who implement top-down mandates frequently find they are unable to deliver the targets on time ‘— and then their jobs are gone. Some do reach targets by forcing or faking them, but the results quickly plateau once the system runs out of tricks,’” they continued. ‘“Our best way forward is not for bureaucrats to impose external targets in cultures of anxiety and fear that turn schools into little Enrons of educational change, prepared to do anything just to get the numbers right.’”

Hargreaves, a professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, was not just any critic. More than five years earlier he and Fullan had collaborated on scholarly research. They shared authorship of a 2000 article in Theory Into Practice called ‘“Mentoring in the New Millenium’” and co-wrote What’s Worth Fighting for In Your School and What’s Worth Fighting for Out There, published respectively in 1996 and 1998 by Teachers College Press.

Fullan and an official from Ontario’s literacy and numeracy secretariat made a riposte four days later, writing in the same newspaper: ‘“Last week’s report by the Education Quality and Accountability Office, an independent agency not influenced by government agendas, showed proof that teachers and principals are working hard and effectively on behalf of Ontario’s students and parents. Results were up for reading, writing and mathematics in grades 3 and 6 with some of the highest one-year increases ever achieved.’”

Mark Jewell, current president of the Guilford County Association of Educators, said teachers have given the Fullan trainings mixed reviews. As for high-stakes testing, he suggested teachers view it at best as an unfortunate reality.

‘“It’s putting an enormous strain on us,’” he said. ‘“We as teachers teach to the whole child, not to the test. The drill and kill model doesn’t work.’”

Theresa Potter, an algebra II honors teacher at Page High School, embodies the reforms Grier is trying to impose. Potter is the Guilford County Association of Educators’ representative for her school and is recognized by the district as an exemplary teacher. A red star cut from construction paper affixed to her door designates hers as an ‘“open classroom.’”

‘“Brand new teachers are allowed to come in and sit down any time,’” she said on a recent Thursday. ‘“Our classrooms are models. Our teaching styles are models.’”

STARS teams from other schools in the system are likewise encouraged to observe Potter’s classroom. About twice a month members of Page High School’s STARS team provide trainings to their fellow teachers during planning periods.

‘“Absolutely’” was Potter’s response to the question of whether the trainings are helpful.

On this day, during the pitch of ACC fever, Potter divided up her students into teams representing Wake Forest University, Duke University and three iterations of UNC-Chapel Hill.

At word ‘go’ they raced each other to solve algebra problems. When a student teacher from UNCG gave notice those who considered themselves contenders thrust handwritten signs into the air. Those who successfully demonstrated the solution to the problem at the board were given the opportunity to shoot a spongy ball into a plastic basket to score points for their team.

Potter circulated through the room, smiling and prodding those who appeared content to let their more advanced peers do the work. When she sensed confusion she’d call time on the game and admonish them to ‘“remember the rules.’”

‘“I’ve actually seen on benchmark tests and mid-terms a real problem like that,’” she said, before asking, ‘“Can we add those exponents?’”

‘“Yes,’” a handful of students responded.

‘“I want to hear thirty students calling out that answer,’” Potter said. ‘“Can we add the base values? We don’t know the values of X and Y so we can’t add them.’”

Later after the students poured out of the classroom at the sound of the 3:35 p.m. bell she said: ‘“Differentiated instruction is huge. Even though it’s wild and crazy it’s a successful method of review because we covered everything we taught. My state scores are very good.’”

Just because standardized testing is imposed on the students doesn’t mean preparation must follow a one-size-fits-all model, she said.

‘“Good teachers have always known that a sixty-question multiple choice test is not the only way to assess what a student knows,’” she said. ‘“We kind of set the pace for high-stakes testing in North Carolina. We may not like it, but we have to make the best of it.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at