New paper-pencil tests crowd ‘best in country’ performance tasks

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To find the most adventurous form of student assessment at play in the United States, at least for an urban school system, you need look no farther than 100 miles up the road to Milwaukee, Wis.

At 160 facilities and some 100,000 students, the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is roughly one-fourth the size of the Chicago system, yet it bears many of the same features, notably a largely minority and low-income student population. For the last few years, Milwaukee—now fabled for its experiment with school choice—has also been trying out a varied method of assessment, called “learning proficiencies,” that combines tests, performance tasks, projects, papers and oral presentations.

“What distinguishes Milwaukee is that they aren’t just looking at test scores but at multiple measures,” says Douglas Reeves, director of the Center for Performance Assessment, a Denver-based consultancy that helped put the Milwaukee plan in place. Reeves calls the Milwaukee approach “the best in the country among big-city systems.”

Yet the Milwaukee Board of School Directors is now moving to slip in more testing and overhaul the proficiencies. Proponents of the proficiencies fear that Milwaukee’s novel mode of performance-based assessment is perilously threatened.

Besides regular coursework, students in Milwaukee also are judged on a variety of performance-based assessments. Elaborate middle-grade proficiencies require 8th-graders to surmount hurdles in science, math and communications. Requirements include executing a science project, designing a scale model, writing essays and a research paper, reading at a certain level and making a three-to-five-minute videotaped speech.

Those who don’t pass muster by 8th-grade graduation day have another option. In summer school, they can participate in Adopt a City, a project where they delve into the demographics, culture, politics and climate of an American city other than Milwaukee and then take a position on whether they’d like to live there.

To graduate from high school, MPS students must demonstrate mastery on both writing and math assessments, which last about three hours apiece. Juniors and seniors must render either a persuasive, creative, expository or narrative essay (depending on the year), plus a business letter. The math tasks center on six problems in geometry and trigonometry, plus two mind twisters involving such elements as compounded interest, vehicle speed, equations and graphs. State reading and math tests are folded into the process.

Their root

The proficiencies have their roots in the early 1990s. MPS, under standards-oriented Supt. Howard Fuller, a civil rights activist, scrapped the norm-referenced Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, demanded arts assessments and oral presentations and stiffened high school exit requirements. (Tests of writing, English language and math already were in place.)

But Fuller’s initiatives soon endured a public humiliation. In 1995, only 21 percent of juniors taking a new MPS math-proficiency exam passed the test, and that caught the eye of then-U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Seventy-nine percent!” he exclaimed in an appearance before the National Press Club that July. “I mean, if this isn’t the beginning of the collapse of your civilization, how bad does it have to get to have indicators? You have a society which is failing to identify what matters and failing to insist that the next generation learn it.”

Gingrich went on to speculate that the math test was too easy. Cynthia Ellwood, MPS education director, took umbrage, suggesting that the speaker take the test. “I’d like to see how he did,” she commented in the press.

Gingrich never complied, but his remarks “catalyzed a reaction,” recalls Ellwood. “It had everybody in Milwaukee fighting for those juniors to succeed.” Indeed, by the following year, more than 90 percent of graduating seniors did clear the math test, and the success rate in both reading and math has since hovered at around the same level.

This year, 93 percent of MPS seniors passed the writing proficiency, while 89 percent cleared the bar in math. Those numbers include students who prevailed by presenting a portfolio of material or by successfully appealing their failure.

Meanwhile, MPS was coming up with a proficiency plan for middle school graduates as well. “There hadn’t been enough clarity to the middle school curriculum, which is how it usually is,” says Ellwood. “Junior high can be so social-emotional unless something else fills it up.” To originate middle school requirements, “we enlisted teachers, principals and people from universities,” Ellwood recounts. “It was a very fast time line.”

Ready by 1997

Even Milwaukee’s traditionally competitive middle school principals pulled together for the effort. “We used to have cocktails and shoot the breeze, so we started having dinner meetings,” recalls Rogers Onick, principal of Morse Middle School, a citywide magnet for the gifted located on the northwest side. “Somehow we decided to work together on behalf of our students.” Once the proficiencies were thrown into the collaborative’s frying pan, the group, assisted by an annual $100,000 grant from the Danforth Foundation, helped cook them into proper shape.

There were compromises along the way, notably relating to Adopt a City. “That was put in as a big escape hatch for kids who couldn’t make it otherwise,” says Ellwood.

Planners met their mark: The middle school proficiencies were codified in 1997, enforceable for the graduating class of 2000.

The high school proficiencies have found a fairly receptive audience among both teachers and students. “I’ve been a teacher for 25 years, and my kids have developed accelerated writing skills,” says Carolyn Flaherty, a just-retired English instructor at Pulaski High School in the working-class south side. “They revise now. They know about first and second drafts and about organization.”

Pulaski math teacher Charlene Lombard echoes her. “Everyone has always thought that Milwaukee students got diplomas without knowledge. Now kids are showing knowledge. The proficiencies legitimize the diplomas.”

Bob Buege, who’s taught English at Pulaski since 1968, has his quibbles. “By putting an emphasis on writing, the proficiencies have eliminated some teaching of literature,” he observes.” There are only so many hours in the school day. Yet this is what the market wants. The businessmen who put in Howard Fuller as superintendent are supportive of this. They are looking for employees. This is just job training.”

Perhaps so, but Pulaski seniors interviewed last spring by Catalyst say they value the proficiencies, especially executing the business letter. “You’ve got to write the business letter formal and all,” says Daniel Welter, an exiting senior who flunked initial tries at both math and writing, yet passed the second time around.” Now, when I see a job listed in the paper, I can attempt to get the job. The company may give me a call.”

Says Belinda Kagel, another graduating senior, “The business letter I wrote was very useful. I was able to express myself in a straight-up way. Before, I wouldn’t have known how to do that.” In fact, a letter Belinda wrote secured her a summer job selling tickets at the Wisconsin State Fair.

“Dear Tony Small, I recently noticed your advertisement in the Sept. 18 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,” pitched Tuyen Ngo, a Pulaski senior seeking (hypothetically) a job as a classroom aide at a new high school.” As a student, I have already unselfishly volunteered to help other students when they are struggling or afraid to ask teachers for help.” Tuyen flunked the English proficiency when she took it last November. “My grammar is bad,” relates Ngo, a Vietnamese immigrant. “When I passed in April, I was just so happy. I just smiled the rest of the day.”

Two exiting 8th-graders interviewed by CATALYST, Anne Dwyer and Julia Toepfer, found the middle school proficiencies useful, too. “They always tell you what you have to do to achieve in high school, but this made it real clear,” says Anne, who along with Julia graduated from Grand Avenue School, located west of downtown.

In math, Julia joined most Milwaukee middle schoolers in building a scale model of the packaging required to house several ping-pong balls. It was “a pyramid-triangle thing,” she says. Anne instead fashioned a model of a room in her house out of tagboard.

Anne’s research paper dealt with the rule of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet; it featured a graph, a chart and five sources. Julia wrote papers about both the death penalty and children’s beauty pageants. For the communications proficiency, she and Julia teamed up to deliver a speech on Irish dancing, a pastime of both girls.

Both girls passed the proficiencies with room to spare, though Julia had some difficulty in math.

Julia had reservations about the process. “We’d be reading a book together and discussing it, and in the middle of things we’d have to stop to do proficiencies,” she says. “It was a little hard. You’d forget the novel. Or a teacher would take you through a prompt for an essay—you’re principal for a day, and what would you change or keep? That didn’t seem too imaginative.”

She also found it frustrating when teachers were diverted to focus on kids who were struggling.

Among them was Deandre Gee, an older, basketball-crazed boy who dreams of one day playing for the Indiana Pacers. “When they [the proficiencies] first came in, I didn’t like them,” he says. “There were all these dumb tests.”

Deandre did well enough on his oral presentation (the topic: hair waves), but his research paper on the death penalty took multiple tries to pass, and his ping-pong-ball scale model never did cut mustard. Weeks from graduation, his math score lagged beneath the score he needed.”I concentrated, doing what I had to do, and I passed,”says Deandre, who had been plagued by “scary thoughts” of having to repeat 8th grade.

“I felt good, and happy,” he relates of his final feat.”No more scary thoughts.”

“Yep, Deandre’s on to high school,” says his grandmother, Dorothy Clay, with whom he lives on the north side of town, near Washington Park. “It was a good thing. You got to do your work. Nobody can do it for you.”

Some 29 percent of 8th-graders (1,809 students) failed to meet the proficiencies by June. After summer school, 885 students hit the mark; 924 failed and were assigned to high schools as transitional students without full status until they pass computer-assisted learning programs administered there.

The middle school standards get mixed reviews from parents and teachers. “This has given kids and teachers specific areas to work on,” thinks Deb Dwyer, Anne’s mother. “Anyway, I don’t like standardized tests. All kids aren’t good test-takers, and there are things like writing that are impossible to gauge on a test. … And yet I have to say, in this age of accountability, my concern is that we don’t over-assess—what with the proficiencies and state tests.”

Wisconsin requires 4th-, 8th- and 10th-graders to take a state exam in five subjects, called the WKCE, that is tied to state standards, plus there’s a 3rd-grade reading comprehension test.

Dorothy Schuller, a math teacher at Fritsche Middle School in the south side’s Bayview neighborhood, guided students through the ping-pong-ball exercise. She liked the scale modeling “for all the new concepts the kids had to learn, like the idea of volume. It was exciting for them. Yet we feel that all we’re doing is proficiencies—and it’s so tiring.”

Says Grand Avenue English teacher Nelly Anderson, “We need some sort of measure, and the proficiencies are unique. But they limit me—a lot of these things take the whole year to do—and I can’t be as creative as I want to be.” She notes that she had to sandwich plays and poetry into the last two weeks of school.

Mary Diez, an education professor at Milwaukee’s Alverno College, had a hand in coming up with the middle school standards, and she continues to embrace them: “Teachers are doing more hands-on instruction, more projects, and they are concentrating on getting kids to show what they know. You can no longer just memorize the scientific method—you have to follow instructions and carry out an experiment. This has changed teaching in Milwaukee.”

Says Cynthia Ellwood, who’s now principal of Hartford University School for Urban Explorations, a north side public school, “This forces you to go child by child. Every kid has to make it. It’s not that scores are reported out to the newspapers—with the proficiencies there are lives on the line.” Ellwood rejects the notion that the proficiencies force out more creative instruction, at least at her school: “Our kids read novels and do wonderfully rich science experiments, independent of the proficiencies. There’s room for it all.”

Shortly after Spence Korté, the former principal of a Milwaukee elementary school, became superintendent in May 1999, he did a tour of middle schools. “I went into a lot of classrooms, and the question I got from almost every kid was, ‘Why do we have to do the proficiencies?'” Korté says. “So I’d ask the kid, ‘Well, how’d you feel when you passed them?’ The answer would be, ‘Great.’ This told me that the proficiencies were focusing students, and that you don’t always like everything that’s good for you.”

School Board President Bruce Thompson, a business professor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering who represents the east and near south sides, isn’t enamored. While Thompson feels the proficiencies “have had a good effect on the middle school, which had been considered a wasteland,” he’s heard gripes. “There’s a fair amount of complaining from kids who say, ‘Hey, my brothers and sisters didn’t have to do all that,'” he comments. The beefing has extended to his own 7th-grade daughter, Laura: “My daughter says that at her school, they spent an awful lot of time on these things, and some are so elaborate there’s more production time than learning time.”

Like most big-city systems, MPS experiences money problems, in part because the state of Wisconsin places revenue caps on all its districts. Last year, MPS faced a $32 million deficit, which it helped trim by shifted the judging of middle school proficiencies from citywide teams back to individual buildings.

Ellwood, for one, saw that as a loss: “There was nothing better than teachers coming to together to discuss what constitutes 8th-grade work.” Yet Thompson applauds the move for fiscal reasons, while also being troubled that the shift has caused school sites to grade proficiencies differently, reducing reliability.”There’s a fair amount of discretion as to how the schools do it,” he claims. Concedes Korté, “With umpteen schools, you do get variations.”

Even with economies, school officials say the proficiencies, overall, cost $ 3 1/2 million a year to administer, write, train for and grade, and that’s in addition to maintaining summer school for foundering 8th-graders. While Thompson says MPS has budgeted to continue the proficiencies, he wants the system to achieve “efficiencies” in all its home-grown tests, which include writing and science samples in the primary grades.

Value-added testing

MPS is redoing its assessment system in the wake of state action. In 1997, Gov. Tommy Thompson (no relation to Bruce) proposed requiring all graduates of Wisconsin public high schools to pass exit exams in English, math, science and social studies. After the PTA and other school groups harshly criticized the idea, the legislature voted instead to require districts to consider not only test results but also academic performance and teacher recommendations in conferring diplomas.

MPS is now proposing to offer three ways, not one, for students to meet minimum standards—passing the proficiencies or passing state tests given at 4th, 8th and 10th grades or passing new “value-added” exams Milwaukee is devising.

A committee under Korté is working on the particulars of a “value-added” test that would be given up through 9th grade in every year where the state test is not given, thus making it possible to track year-to-year progress. “If a kid gets to 4th grade and there’s a problem, the question becomes, Why didn’t we catch it?” says Bruce Thompson. “A value-added test will tell us.”

Beginning in 2004, MPHS seniors will have to pass a new state exam to graduate. The math and writing proficiencies will be jettisoned, though Mike Czerwinski, MPS assessment administrator, is quick to point out the fresh requirement of a research paper and companion oral presentation will kick in.

Many observers see the new options as a watering down of the proficiencies. “I guarantee you that some school will say, ‘Oh, our kids can get through just by doing well on a test,'” speculates Denver’s Doug Reeves. “The school will stop doing the proficiencies. That will lead to lower expectations, especially for children of poverty and color.”

“We’re about to have much more standardized testing and less proficiency assessment,” predicts Tina Johnson, co-founder of Parents United for Public Schools (PUPS), a community group. Both PUPS and Rethinking Schools, a national, Milwaukee-based advocacy newspaper, say that instituting the new assessment system will increase the number of obligatory tests between kindergarten and the end of high school from 19 to 52. “They call this a balanced assessment system, but actually it will become unbalanced,” argues Bob Peterson, an editor of Rethinking Schools and a critic on the value-added test committee.

Both Bruce Thompson and Mike Czerwinski counter that there will actually be fewer tests. “And the tests that there are will take less time,” says Czerwinski. According to Czerwinski, the discrepancy revolves around the counting of sub-tests as tests.

The push away from the proficiencies has many nefarious roots, say the reformers. Many teachers will welcome the retreat, says Peterson, himself a 5th-grade instructor at La Escuela Fratney, a bilingual school in the River West neighborhood: “Some teachers are lazy. They’d rather give out worksheets than really teach.” Peterson disputes the MPS estimate of how much it costs to run the proficiencies—”It’s less than $1 million,” he says—yet admits that whatever the expense, it’s cheaper to apply a standardized test.

Cynthia Ellwood feels that with MPS’s move toward administrative decentralization—a special passion for Bruce Thompson—”they can now have tests that can be scored on a machine and can do without more people at central office. The way I see it, the belief that performance-based assessment can drive the curriculum is gone.”

Korté concedes that the new procedures “well might” diminish the proficiencies, a trend he bemoans yet sees as a sign of the times: “The world is moving toward too much testing. The political environment is somehow wrestling the public schools to the ground using tests. Look at the presidential campaign. We’re going through a phase. In six or seven years, the pendulum will swing back the other way.”

Meanwhile, Korté frets about the effects: “Everybody wants the best and the brightest, but what is the potential for the rest of the kids who don’t pass tests? The trick is to deal with the immigrant kids, or kids who are wrecks before they ever get to school, or have 75 IQs. All the rigor in the world isn’t going to help those kids.”