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Buy the Sunday NY Times

Today's big article in the Times Magazine -- School Testing and its consequences. I have yet to read it in depth, but I suspect that they will tackle the fact that suburbanites view the tests differently than inner-city folk, politicians view it differently than educators, and pity the kids. It's a long piece. So long in fact, that'd I'd rather read it in hard copy from.

Here is an excerpt from a passage that deals with Fairfax County (which James Traub probably chose since it is both a "university town" and a "suburb") , my home and the school system that educated me.

It is not always so clear-cut that the high-performing suburbs are superior to the test. Often the standards, and the tests, assume a kind of traditional pedagogy that has gone out of fashion, especially in liberal suburbs or university towns. Thus when Virginia instituted its ''standards of learning'' tests in 1998, the failure rate in the suburbs was almost as high as in the backwoods. Roughly 65 percent of students in the state failed the social studies test, which assumed detailed knowledge of dates, places and events. The state is now phasing in a rule accrediting schools when 70 percent of their students pass each test; the first year, 3 percent of state schools qualified for accreditation. Even in wealthy Fairfax County, the figure was only 7 percent. After an interval of shock and soul-searching, teachers realized that they would have to prepare students much more explicitly for the tests. Fairfax is now up to 80 percent; but Daniel Domenech, the county superintendent, says that the new focus ''has substantially diverted attention from a broader and richer curriculum.'' Exactly how unfortunate an outcome this is probably depends on your view of the kind of old-fashioned curriculum the Virginia tests assume. For example, the fifth-grade ''Reading/Literature and Research'' test expected students to be able to distinguish among rhyme schemes and recognize free verse. Is that so bad?

Whatever the merits of the case, Fairfax County parents appear to agree with their superintendent. Last year, Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, convened focus groups of suburban parents for Mark Warner, the gubernatorial candidate. When he asked a general question about how things were going in the state, parents turned immediately to the standards of learning. ''Parents complained bitterly about a curriculum that is structured around teaching to the test and that crowds out other learning,'' Garin says. Warner got the picture and promised to reform the standards to reflect ''real learning,'' a phrase that is shorthand for a focus on broad skills rather than particular content. Warner's Republican opponent never enthusiastically defended the standards. Garin says that the next frontier may be Florida, where the Democrat Bill McBride has taken to criticizing state tests that are also viewed as hostile to ''real learning.''


I was in high school just as they were beginning to implement the SOLs. If I recall, my HS flunked badly. I think about only half of the people who took the test passed it. (I was one of the ones who passed, though I only took two of the tests.)

This particular school was a strange mix of students. Children of low-income immigrants and minorities, and children of affluent professionals. The racial makeup of the school when I went was 30 percent Latino; 24 percent white; 22 percent Asian; 12 percent Middle Eastern; and 12 percent African American. In fact, National Geographic went there to look at diversity. (more to come...)
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/photo/metro/archive/G29161-2001May01.html
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A33091-2001May2.html