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Testing, Testing, Testing

Missouri's MAP is a fine, thoughtful standardized test. So how come it's wreaking havoc in the schools?


Mr. Howard starts toward the blackboard, then remembers. "What're you gonna do with that MAP?" he calls over his shoulder.

"We're gonna ZAP that MAP!" the fourth-graders shout.

"Ms. Cannon can't hear you," he warns, pointing down to the principal's office, two floors below.

"We're gonna ZAP THAT MAP!" they roar, and he beams.

Unlike his beleaguered colleagues at other schools, Arthur Howard is delighted by the annual Missouri Assessment Program exam that's reshaping Missouri's educational system. Two years ago, his beloved Benjamin Banneker Elementary School was one of 40 St. Louis public schools branded a "school of opportunity," euphemism for "academically deficient." The new principal, Emma Cannon, immediately set out to realign the curriculum with the "Show-Me Standards" tested by the MAP. She used federal funds to hire extra teachers and shrank class sizes so teachers could nurture every student's progress. She allayed her teachers' fears ("The only one whose job is on the line is me"), but she made the goal crystal-clear.

Last spring, tiny Banneker did so well on the MAP that it made Missouri's Top 10 list for most improved scores. "We are MAP-driven," Howard says happily. "It's given us focus, and it's given the kids more confidence about showing what they know." They take the exam eagerly, and when they finish, they inform their teachers, "We did wonderful!"

Of course, they've had a meticulously planned curriculum that integrated every MAP standard, measuring classroom time by the item's proportional weight on the test, and for the past month their teachers have avoided anything "MAP-intensive," working instead to make the kids comfortable. "Don't get nervous now," soothes Howard, a tall, portly gentleman who moves like a dancing bear and keeps order with mock ferocity. "People are going to be coming in and out while you are taking the test, and you know what I want you to do? Take your pencil and say [he laughs wickedly], 'I got this one, baby!' "The testing window opened this Monday, and it will shut May 11. During those four weeks, half-a-million public-school students will take the MAP, and thousands of adults will sweat blood over the results. A state requirement only since 1998, the MAP has already attained Holy Grail status, dictating curriculum, teaching methods and school priorities. Even its detractors say it's the best standardized test Missouri's ever had, forcing teachers to demand greater literacy and critical thinking year-round.

But because the MAP wields such sudden power, it's also creating havoc. Districts can lose accreditation if their MAP scores fall; schools can be dissolved, their teachers stripped of tenure. Principals, who have no tenure to shed, depend on the MAP scores for their very jobs. There's talk of making the MAP a high-school-graduation requirement and of adding "performance" (read: "MAP scores") to the formula that sets teachers' salaries. The goal is accountability -- and yet the MAP is virtually useless as feedback for the teachers. Because it lets kids write out their answers instead of picking them from the air, scoring is labor-intensive, half-a-year has gone by before teachers see the results and, because it would be prohibitively expensive to give the same MAP-subject exam more than once every three or so years, there's no real way to compare methods or measure improvement. Instead, teachers find themselves doing everything they've warned their students not to do: cramming up to the last minute; drilling tricks and techniques and rote content; obsessing.

"MAP MAP MAP, every staff meeting, beating this dead horse all year long," rants an administrator elsewhere in the St. Louis Public Schools. "Our superintendent got up last year and said, 'If teachers can't do it, they can get out.' How dare he? He couldn't do it! We're working against extraordinary odds, and all we get is browbeaten."

She's normally a calm and sweet-tempered woman. But the MAP has a way of bearing down on you. "It's a very difficult test, and students are having a difficult time with it," notes Michael P. Grady, professor of educational studies at St. Louis University, "partly because it's new and partly because it's testing the way teachers have not traditionally taught, requiring students to demonstrate what they know. It's also much more difficult to score, more complex and more subjective. And it has more political weight than any previous standardized test; the emphasis on it is just overwhelming. You put on a workshop that mentions MAP skills, and a couple hundred people show up; you put on a workshop on the development of China, you'll get three or four."

The subjects tested -- science, communication arts, math, social studies, health/physical education and a pilot subject, visual arts -- rotate in a staggered schedule, two at a time from third grade through high school. There are three test sessions for each subject: a fill-in-the-blank "constructed response"; a "performance event" in which students must show their work; and a traditional multiple-choice test. "It's a really strict testing environment," explains Chris Fowler, a freshman at Pattonville High School. "You can't even go to the bathroom unless it's a severe emergency."

This year's third-graders are taking the MAP for the first time, in science and communication arts, but by the time they return to those subjects, in middle school, the exams' scope will have broadened cumulatively and their success will hinge on all their previous teachers, all their previous learning. By high school, the range of scores is as wide as a football field, and improvement is far harder to elicit. Graphed, the scores zag with mysterious predictability: In the St. Louis Public Schools from 1997-2000, the percentage of math scores in the top two tiers increased by more than 7 percentage points for the fourth-graders but by less than 1 point for the eighth-graders and dropped by almost 2 points for the 10th-graders. Science scores rose by 9 points for the third-graders and by almost 3 points for the seventh-graders but dropped by nearly 1 point for the 10th-graders. Statewide, the average scores were higher, but the pattern was identical.

Over time, as more and more students are exposed to the MAP from the start, the older students' scores may improve. Still, by high school there are so many ability levels and motivation levels crammed into one classroom that teachers can't possibly reach them all. The kids are savvier, too; it's a challenge just getting them to show up, let alone take the test seriously. "They don't see the direct application to them as individuals," explains Joseph Powers, principal of Ladue Horton Watkins High School. Is there a direct application to them as individuals? "Well, no," he admits. "There really isn't." This is why Ladue's MAP scores, although they fell into Missouri's top 10 percent, "didn't have the same punch as the results on our ACTs and SATs," he continues. "They do cooperate; I had no discipline referrals from testing last year. But I know there were kids who thought, 'What difference does it make?'" Last year a Clayton High student was making elaborate designs with the multiple-choice bubbles; when the proctor reproved him, he shot back, "Mind your own business." By the time the student saw his scores, he'd have different teachers and different classes, and although a lousy score on the MAP might make his school look bad, it wouldn't keep him out of Harvard.

It's his teachers who are suffering from test anxiety.

"My teachers are usually a lot more nervous around testing time," reports Fowler. "They get real short with us, 'cause it matters so much to them and they know the kids don't care. Sometimes the school has assemblies about the MAP, like, 'We have to do good on this so we can get our money.' And the teachers try to incorporate it -- they'll say, 'Yeah, we have to prepare you for the MAP test; that's why we have these essay questions.' One of my teachers said their salary's based on how well their students do on the MAP test." Actually, the only money involved would be the funding lost if scores were so bad the school lost accreditation, and Pattonville hasn't yet tried bonus incentives for teachers whose students do well -- but teachers think it's only a matter of time until their salaries are tied to the MAP.

"Some of them copy the multiple-choice part and give you a grade themselves," continues Fowler, "because they know we only care if it counts." What about the pep rallies, prizes and pizza days educational consultants are recommending? Does the promise of pizza really sharpen somebody's mental concentration? "Prob'ly," he says with a shrug. "I like anything that's free. You can't make a test fun; I have yet to see it."

As an educational consultant, Grady's not enamored of the MAP, either -- he says it narrows curriculum and encourages unfair comparisons of the districts -- but he's resigned to its inevitability. He even conducts "test-wiseness programs" for schools that haven't grasped "the new three R's: reinforcement, review and rewards." Principals, meanwhile, bring in motivational speakers to get the kids pumped up, and some even ask parents not to yell or scold on a test morning, lest the kids come to school mad and flub the test. They also send reminder letters urging parents to make sure their child gets a good night's sleep -- an extra half-hour, even -- and a good breakfast (the Ferguson-Florissant School District feeds the kids itself), with a hug and a kiss for good luck.

In Missouri's new educational gamble, the kids hold all the chalk. If they score really badly two years running, their school could lose accreditation, their teachers could lose tenure and their principal could lose her job. If they score just sort of lousy, the school board will lose its temper, the disgusted residents will vote down any tax increases and the great educational hope of the new millennium will be foiled.

It's called "high-stakes testing" for a reason.

Missouri first plotted the MAP in 1993 with the creation of the Show-Me Standards, a series of concepts that teachers and decision-makers thought students should be grasping as they moved through school. Once those standards were in place, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education asked testing experts at CTB/McGraw-Hill to help devise a test. They started with math and added new subjects each year thereafter. The goal, both politically and educationally, was accountability. But the game soon turned into a tug-of-war, with the teachers on one side and the bureaucrats on the other.

"We're not against accountability," emphasizes Carol K. Schmoock, assistant executive director of the Missouri National Educational Association, which represents about 30,000 teachers. "We supported the development of the Show-Me Standards. But now what we have is such a focus on doing well on the test that our teachers feel limited in being able to teach beyond it. Districts and boards are putting undue pressure on principals and, sometimes, teachers to improve test scores or else. Districts are beginning to talk about 'pay for performance.' And the exams don't even follow a given class of students, so you're not showing what a given class is learning. The third-grade science test is not a test of the third-grade science teacher, it's a test of everything the kids have learned both inside and outside of school in grades one, two and three."

Missouri NEA members are so frustrated that they've commissioned William D. Schafer, who holds a doctorate in educational research and measurement and helped develop Maryland's standardized test, to study the way the MAP is used and make recommendations to DESE. In general, he says, "an assessment should not be a surprise to anyone. Usually the problem isn't that a test is too inclusive but that it's too vague. In Maryland, we put down 'important Supreme Court cases,' and all the teachers protested -- how would they know which decisions the state deemed important? They were right. So we chose 10." Schafer is a strong believer in testing -- the more the better, to get kids used to it -- but when he's asked whether a MAP score reveals anything definite, he hesitates: "I'm trying to think of something. I would use it" -- his voice slows to a ponder -- "as a way to generate hypotheses that I would then explore, because, frankly, test scores are fallible."

MAP data should be used to make school-level decisions, says Schafer, not decisions about individual teachers or students. Try explaining that to a school board embarrassed by its district's MAP scores or a legislator who has just jumped on President George W. Bush's accountability-through-standardized-testing bandwagon. "Politicians think tests teach and the more they test, the more the kids will learn," sighs Grady. "In my opinion, just the opposite happens." The best teachers not only feel hamstrung by the "curriculum framework" but shy away from the schools that need them the most, because they're afraid the lower test scores will jeopardize their own professional standing.

Tests affect administrators, too: The Hazelwood School District just bought land for $1.5 million, in part to block construction of an apartment complex that might increase the number of low-income transient students taking their tests. Kids at one University City school say that when their principal saw last year's test scores, she cried. And U. City residents successfully campaigned against a tax increase for the district last week by pointing to those very scores.

So far, the students are the people least affected by their MAP scores. The only statewide consequences to date are free college-credit courses or advanced-placement tests for the high achievers and extra tutoring during evenings, weekends and summertime for the low achievers. (It's also a motivational strategy: DESE hopes the threat of summer school will help older students concentrate.) The state Board of Education says other individual consequences are "not yet determined," and Schmoock can't help noticing that "in the new accreditation program, there's an increasing focus on student performance specifically related to the MAP." Locally, some schools already use MAP scores as criteria for their gifted programs; others are bent on making the MAP a condition for graduation.

Until there's DNA test verification, that's a dangerous proposition. Last year in Minnesota, 50 students were mistakenly kept from graduating because of a scoring error on their standardized exams. In New York in 1999, almost 9,000 students were mistakenly sent to summer school because their tests were graded inaccurately. Even at Banneker, where they've mastered the art of MAP improvement, the principal is afraid the scores count too heavily. "The MAP has a lot of power at this point," Cannon observes quietly. "I don't think we really want to use it to evaluate teacher performance, because we could end up penalizing teachers inappropriately. I'm almost thinking it should not be used to evaluate individual school performance, because you're only looking at a few grade levels, and that may not be an accurate picture, depending on how the children fall. For an individual student, tracking the scores over the years would be OK, but if it meant making a judgment on one particular grade level, I don't know if I'd want to do that, either."

Imagine a really nice guy with a screechy voice who somehow gets the lead in the school play. If he were in a supporting role, you could clap for him. But you don't want that voice taking over the show.

The MAP shouldn't star, either. It is merely a standardized test. But as standardized tests go, it's pretty darn good. It's been vetted by some of Missouri's best teachers, and everyone agrees it's a dramatic improvement over its predecessor, a solid-multiple-choice machine-scored monstrosity the teachers nicknamed Trivial Pursuit. The MAP takes more risks and expects higher performance: There's still a classic multiple-choice test in Part III, for comparison purposes, but Parts I and II require students to read closely, think a problem through and write out their answers, step by step -- and that simple shift transforms the rest of the school year.

First thing every morning, Banneker freezes -- no movement in the halls, no noise, no interruptions -- while everybody practices reading. Way up on the third floor, in Room 303, the "Older Roots" (kids reading below age level) sit on the floor cross-legged, so close to teacher Nicole Hutchison that her chalk dust falls on their upturned noses. "What do you think Petey saw?" she asks brightly. Hands shoot up, but she presses her finger against her lips. "Let me see thinking." Eight brows furrow. "Share when you are ready," she says gently, and this time fewer hands hit the air, but they hold steadier. "OK, you had some great answers -- give yourselves an Elvis!" The kids strum invisible guitars and mutter, "Thankyouverymuch."

The Elvis is one of dozens of lively reinforcers put forward by Success for All, a Johns Hopkins University model that assesses reading skills every eight weeks. Reading is the first step in MAP preparation -- "They can't take the test if they can't read it," Cannon notes dryly -- and the mimed praise is fun and fast to keep those ever-shortening attention spans. Three seconds after the Elvis, Hutchison has the kids reading a new story. Their voices blur into Babel, but it's such a small group that she can distinguish each hesitation or omission: "OK, that was wonderful -- give yourselves an arctic chill!" They shiver and hug themselves close, and it's on to phonics. "Give me an example of a word that has a long 'o' in it." "Oprah!" "Only!" "OK! Give yourselves a silent cheer!" Arms go up, triumphant. "Now, pencils up. Slant down, slant way down (they're drawing a Y in the air). Excellent. Give yourselves a Beethoven."


That last note vibrates the wall of the next classroom, where Rashidah Saeed guides a higher-level reading group. "Now, remember, when you select an answer, you should be able to do what?" she prompts. "Follow it up with details from the story, right?" A bespectacled little girl in tights and a skirt sits up even straighter, raises her hand and offers an answer. "Does everybody agree with that?" asks Saeed. "Do you have evidence from the story? What page should we turn to?" After a debate worthy of moot court, they practice reading vocabulary words in pairs, the prim little girl growing impatient with her partner and tossing her braids. "It's 'squinting,' come on!" He reads the rest of the list in a single breath to shut her up. Then they all talk about description, a boy finding the two sentences in the story that detail a seashell's characteristics. After a congratulatory "watermelon," the kids chomping into its imaginary middle, Saeed tells them how she wrapped seashells to bring back from Ghana last year and promises to bring one in.

It's proof: You can teach creatively and prepare kids for the MAP. Besides, this kind of emphasis on reading, writing and critical thinking was sorely needed. If the MAP's influence stopped there, no good teacher would object. But by spelling out the concepts that should be learned by test time, the test also dictates the order in which material is presented and the amount of time that should be given to each concept. "What if the kids can't read?" asks Terry Reger, a 30-year veteran in the Ferguson-Florissant district. "If you let the other subjects go and concentrate on that, the scores reflect it, the school looks bad and now you're in bad with the state."

Grady's biggest worry is the narrowing of teachers' focus. "What they're doing is making a helluva good case for nonpublic schools," he remarks. "The curriculum is being constricted; learning's put in little boxes determined by what's going to be tested on the MAP. In some subjects, that makes more sense, like math, but the world of learning is much larger than the MAP. Teachers can't pursue exciting current events; there's no time. You want to be sure you teach a particular concept before the MAP in April, even if it makes more sense to do it in May.

"The best of it is the accountability," he concludes. "The worst is, it's given us a state curriculum."

The phrase rings less ominous when it's repeated in Emma Cannon's lilting, courteous voice. "We perhaps do have a state curriculum," she agrees, "but is that a bad thing? Something's always going to drive the curriculum, no matter what it is, and the MAP standards are broad ones. I can't imagine someone saying that because they had to teach MAP standards they couldn't do current events. It's possible to take almost anything you'd do as a teacher and incorporate concepts on the MAP."

It probably is, if you're planning and integrating your curriculum months in advance. But for the older kids, subjects are specialized and the "domain" of the test, the pool of possible test questions, is exhaustive. "By the end of high school, they will have a list of hundreds of things they need to know. In social studies alone, there's documents, American history, world history, economics, geography, government," says Reger, who coordinates curriculum for Ferguson-Florissant. "It's a running test, never the same. They gave us six examples of important Supreme Court cases and tested on a seventh. One year they hit really hard on economics, the next year on environment. Then the state Legislature passed a law wanting the kids to know flag etiquette. Well, I was so busy, I thought, 'Oh, flags, we'll worry about that later' -- and guess what came up on the test?"

After last year's exam, Reger heard a third-grade teacher muttering, "I taught them magnets. I taught them gravity. I taught them the universe." The teacher had obviously missed something, which is why Reger consistently warns her teachers not to dwell on any single concept. "A teacher will say, 'They don't know the four basic operations -- adding subtracting multiplying and dividing -- so I'm going to stay there till they do.' But if that's all she teaches, that's only 5-10 percent of the test. I tell them, 'You have to keep moving. Go on to geometry and algebra, and maybe the kids will pick up addition and subtraction along the way.'"

To keep up with the MAP, educators devise their own tricks. "They have a level called Not Determined that means you didn't complete all three test sessions, so you don't get averaged into your school's score," explains an administrator at a St. Louis public school. "In years past, that's how schools cheated. It was just so coincidental that the lowest-scoring kids didn't finish. But now you have a four-week window to finish, and the state got a little wise; they set a limit."

"Ah yes, the old classic method for raising your scores -- send the bottom 25 percent to the zoo," chuckles DESE's director of assessment, James Friedebach. "Now a district can't average more than 10 percent Level Not Determined, and no more than 14 percent, over the year; it's part of the accreditation process. If you have higher percentages, you get no performance points."

The harder it is to cheat, the more pressure there is to outthink the test, drill the format, second-guess the content. "Not every standard is tested every year," notes the administrator, "so the next year you get smart and teach to the standards they haven't tested yet. Well, you might bump up scores that year -- might -- but the following year, when they could have had two years of a broad-based curriculum to prepare them, you've lost a whole year. We are going to shoot ourselves in the foot like we always do, because we are teaching the test and not teaching content."

According to Friedebach, the only part of the MAP one really could "teach to" is the multiple-choice exam, the Terra Nova, which stays the same every year. But to get a nice round bell curve in its scores, the Terra Nova throws in questions about material a child in that grade wouldn't have studied yet. The whizzes with math-professor parents solve the problems, the rest don't, and the curve normalizes. "That's why trying to teach to a norm-referenced test doesn't work," Friedebach concludes. "The hardest items aren't even in the curriculum, and if you try to teach them, they'll be jumbled, because they're out of order. If teachers are trying to teach to the Terra Nova, they're missing the point."

Cannon says the real trick isn't to "teach the test" but to weight the concepts. Pulling down a thick binder, she flips to the "item analysis" data for the MAP and points at the tiny type. "If I see that they have eight questions on geology and two on biology, I know my children are going to need some biology but more geology." She closes the binder and folds her arms on top of it, leaning forward: "My question wasn't 'How do we fix the MAP?' but 'How do we approach it?' We don't like the idea of someone saying we are achieving at a lower level than anyone else. So it became a matter of pride."

The central irony of the accountability-obsessed MAP is that it's absolutely useless as instructional feedback. Not only is it a "rolling test," with the questions and emphases changing every year, but you're testing a new batch of kids with markedly different abilities and levels and backgrounds. Unless your students score so low they have to take the February retest, you'll never know whether they eventually grasped the concepts they missed and you'll never know whether you've found a better way to teach those particular concepts. "You can't measure improvement," explains Laura Schmink, principal of the Dewey School of International Studies, a magnet school. "Yet that's exactly what they are asking us to measure."

The more optimistic teachers speak hopefully of the new ways data will be made available to them, but the frustration still flashes in their eyes. All this effort is being expended, all this time and money, yet it doesn't even give enough feedback to get the students interested, let alone help their teachers fix the gaps.

"We're not insensitive to that," says Friedebach. "This June, we're going to initiate some in-state scoring, in five centers, and if it works well, we'll have 12 sites next year, and we'll be able to score much quicker. We still won't be able to get the information back to teachers before they leave for summer, but it's possible we can get it to administrators by mid-July so they can organize it and make it more useful."

Teachers would rather see the same group of kids tested before and after, or at least have results in time to teach what wasn't clear before the year ends. But testing experts say you can't expect that kind of feedback from an instrument like the MAP. "Asking an accountability assessment to be also instructional is asking too much," insists Schafer, the consultant hired by the state NEA. "The test scores really are building-level information; they're a check on the school's program, but they're not for instructional decision-making about students."

He's speaking the precise, quantitative language of institutional assessment, a language possible only in a quiet, air-conditioned office. Teachers glance at the numbers, but then they walk inside that building and confront warm, noisy students with complicated lives. Some are "pencil-biters" who agonize on tests but glide brilliantly through real life. Some scrunch their eyes almost shut, trying to push past a learning disability. Some can't focus at all because their mom's hooked on crack cocaine and doesn't know her boyfriend beats them. All those scores average into the MAP results, and if a particular class is stacked with kids with developmental delays, explosive tempers or special needs, the scores will make it look like the teacher's fault.

Then there are the peripheral casualties. In one district, guidance counselors are charged with coordinating all the mechanics of the test, and they say it eats up two months of their time and energy -- not to mention requiring them to halt individual counseling and support groups for death, divorce and anger. "We had a fifth-grader come in and say she was raped," recalls a counselor who was mired in testing prep at the time. "We have a young man who's convinced he's a cartoon character, and our joke to each other is 'Well, let's get his reading scores up!'"

Priorities, in other words, get skewed. So do expectations. Even teachers who won't complain about their own stress levels find themselves advocating fiercely for the youngest kids. "I was proctoring the third-grade exam last year," says Reger, "and there was this chubby little black guy -- I just fell in love with him. He was writing about sewer rats for his essay, and the rats were all trying to get out of the sewer and knocking each other over and then they decided to cooperate. He just wrote his heart out, and then he just clunked over and fell dead asleep, out like a light. There is so much writing for the third grade. We wanted them to move the science test up to fifth grade and let the third-grade teachers concentrate on reading. But the state said it would be too costly, because they'd have to make all new tests."

Banneker's third-grade teachers make their position plain, arguing in the lunchroom right in front of their principal. "The performance objectives are set too high," Hutchison says firmly. "The third-graders see a very vague prompt and 10 pages of blank paper, and they're not ready for that. Give the fifth-graders the performance event, because I would expect that of my fifth-graders."

"A lot of them have the abilities, but they don't have the attention span," notes Stacy King, a third-grade teacher in the Francis Howell School District who has been involved with MAP development from the start. "The first day they're psyched, they're so excited, but by the last day they couldn't care less. It's a lot for third grade."

King flew out to the testing company's California headquarters for a teacher review of the new questions, and she mentioned one from the previous year that stopped her kids cold. The question asked how a snake's colors help it survive -- the biological purpose of camouflage -- but the picture showed a black snake on a white background. "I got all these puzzled looks," she recalls, "and I knew exactly where they were in the test." The testing experts told her that if it were a bad question, it wouldn't have "survived statistically" (everybody would have gotten it wrong). But King wasn't worried her kids wouldn't eventually figure it out; she was worried about the break in concentration and the time lost pondering something so illogical. She'd like to see another layer of question tryouts, not just the field test that decides statistical survival. "We sat there in California saying, 'This one's going to be a problem' -- but by then it was too late to do much changing."

"Don't let anyone tell you that standardized tests are not accurate measures," writes education theorist Alfie Kohn in the January Phi Delta Kappan. "They offer a remarkably precise method for gauging the size of the houses near the school where the test was administered."

His point is tough to contradict -- yet he'll find argument in the inner city, where educators are tired of the automatic ceiling on their kids' performance. At Banneker, 97 percent of the students qualify for the free/reduced-price lunch program, and the transiency rate (the proportion of the student body transferring in or out in a given year) is more than 31 percent. "When county schools participate in desegregation programs, they ask for performance reports, and there is some picking and choosing," notes Cannon. "Any child who comes to Banneker we take, and if that child comes in right before testing, her scores count. We're talking about apples and oranges if we compare Banneker to Ladue; our children do not have a lot of the opportunities or experiences, and kids from Ladue are going to college -- that's a given; it really doesn't make any difference whether they have achieved or not. My students, some of the parents haven't graduated high school. That's a given."

She's heading straight for the liberal vote, but then she wheels around: "Aside from home life, a teacher is the most important factor in a child's life. That teacher can convince that child she can do anything. So, yes, the test is culturally biased, but I don't have a problem with that, as long as you tell us what you're going to test." She lands squarely in paradox: Don't make excuses for these kids because they are poor. But never forget that they are poor.

The state ... is trying. "Socioeconomic impact shows up more on a norm-referenced test," says Friedebach, referring to the traditional multiple-choice bell-curve sort of test President Bush wants to institute nationwide. "Those tests are built to separate kids, to sort them. Those who've had opportunities to learn more outside class are more likely [from families with higher incomes]. The MAP achievement-level score should, over time, go contrary to that, because it's based on only the Show-Me Standards." And the kids whose parents can't read? "If those youngsters arrive at our front door in kindergarten and they're a bit behind, we have four years," Friedebach notes. "So that becomes the responsibility of the school district."

Schafer sums up the two schools of thought: "One says you can properly compare scores only when schools are at similar socioeconomic levels. The other says all these kids are going to compete for the same jobs, so they should be held to the same standards. If you differentiate among schools, you only allow a school to look effective when it isn't."

So no more excuses.

Controversy over the MAP, as with virtually every other controversy, boils down to power and how it's wielded. The state made the MAP, but when administrators play crack-the-whip, the state's nowhere to be found. Asked whether MAP scores should dictate a principal's salary, Friedebach says swiftly, "That's a local decision." Should the test factor strongly in teacher evaluations? "That's local, too. Missouri is definitely a locally controlled state, and I think that's good."

How locally controlled can you be with what some are calling a state curriculum? "This is by no means a state curriculum," he counters. "A state curriculum would tell you how, and when, to teach these concepts." And just how much of the variance in MAP scores is due to the quality of instruction? "Oh, jeez," he sighs. The he brightens: There is a simple answer. "When districts determine that they are going to focus on the standards, dramatic impact can occur. Rockwood, for example. Granted, they're a good district already, but they have a very tight alignment [of curriculum with standards], and it shows."

As a principal, Schmink is more interested in what happens later this year, when the state identifies the lowest-scoring 50 schools. She's not worried about Dewey -- "just the fact that these are kids whose parents cared enough to fill out that application for magnet school makes a difference" -- but other schools aren't so lucky. Granted, if they're found "academically deficient" two years running, they won't be dissolved until they've received five years of additional teacher training and resources. "But that won't stop parents who care from getting their kids out," Schmink notes. "And that would leave you with only the kids whose parents don't care."

The MAP doesn't make note of parental involvement or that luxury of the rich and, occasionally, the federally funded poor, small class sizes. Yet both are far better predictors of academic success than any standardized test. "An idiot knows that you can work better with 15 children than with 30," remarks Cannon, and Reger still remembers the year a scheduling snag made her split a class into two sections, one with 31 kids and one with 14. "I had two really bad behavior disorders among the 14," she recalls, "and still we moved like lightning, because I could give them attention."

And what about those third-graders, squirming through long exams in science and communication arts? "Makes 'em cry?" asks Friedebach, familiar with the complaints. "There are different points of view. One can teach science while teaching reading; you can teach people to read about science." Besides, he adds, the third-grade science scores have improved markedly. "When you start measuring things at a spot, things change."

Measurement is seductive; it gives you something to point to, something to do. Now the Francis Howell board members and, no doubt, quite a few others, have decided the MAP's not enough: They want even more standardized testing. "When are we going to teach?" wails King. She'd rather stick with only the MAP but revise it so that it allows more kids to do well: "I don't think there's anything wrong with a test that says, 'These are the standards, and we want everyone to be able to do very well on this test.' But that's not how it was created. If a lot of kids get an item wrong, they throw it out, but if a lot of kids get it right, they throw it out, too."

Asked whether that's true, Friedebach mutters, "No, no, no! There are a lot of half-truths out there. We're trying to find out whether kids are just beginning to understand a concept or have a good grasp of it. If everyone gets it right, that doesn't tell us much -- so yeah, I guess we would throw it out. But we might keep a question where 90 percent got it right. We want items that go across the spectrum.

"There is nothing mysterious about preparing for the MAP," he adds. "The Show-Me Standards have been out there for seven years now." Yeah, teachers counter, but you can't teach it all yourself. What if you wind up being penalized for your predecessors' lapses? "In 2001, we will be testing math for the fifth year," he answers wearily. "How many years does it take the 10th-grade teachers to figure out that they need to make sure their 10th-graders know these things and they need to talk to the ninth-grade teachers about it?" Human nature being what it is, those teachers will, of course, thank them profusely and immediately begin rectifying their omissions.

As for the teachers' nervous systems, Friedebach suggests they take the advice they give their kids: "If you start in September and you do your homework, then by the time you get to the test it will take care of itself."

Even the brightest of students never believed that one.

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