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Tests of the time

Tom Boyd

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series profiling the way education policy changes are affecting Eagle County public high schools. Look for part two in next week’s edition of the Vail Trail.It’s Monday morning at Battle Mountain High School in Eagle-Vail and the first computerized, monotone ring of the bell warns 734 students (give or take a few truants and transfers) that the school day is about to begin. Throughout the rest of the day that same bell will ring 21 more times, each time sending a new group of youths into a different classroom, a different learning environment, in front of a different teacher.The subjects of the day will be as diverse as the colorful faces of the student body. High school students from every culture and sub-culture in the valley will meet and study English, algebra, art, social studies, shop, science, health, home economics, foreign language and a score of other topics in state-of-the art, computerized classrooms and a school building that is among the most modern in the state.Although it is hardly apparent in the faces of teachers, students, councilors and administrators as they roll through their day-to-day routine, major changes are brewing. An overall philosophy of accountability has taken hold among officials in the state and federal government, and this philosophy is driving a series of new federal laws, state mandates, and district reforms that significantly change the way students spend their time between bells.Some of these reforms are already in place. Some are slated to begin next year. But already the effects are being felt, and at Battle Mountain High School some of the bedrock principles of educational theory are being shaken to their core.The standardized studentThere may not be a person under 40 in America today who has not seen them. They are small, oval, and require tedious effort to fill in correctly; they are the bane of shiftless high school students and the new pathway to the almighty dollar for contemporary school administrators. Coded in A B C D and all of the above, they are the most important fund-raising tool in modern education: they are the standardized testing answer sheets.All those little oval answers on the Colorado Student Assessment Program test (CSAP) may seem insignificant to the students who take them (after all, they don’t count toward classroom grades or college acceptance), but for Battle Mountain High School principal Mark Bullock, they spell the difference between failure and success.”In reality no matter what other assessment tool we use, and we use many tools to gauge student growth, in regards to the state, all that matters is the CSAP,” Bullock says.And the state controls much of the school’s funding.The importance of the tests is part of Gov. Bill Owens education reform policy, which links student performance on the CSAP to school funding. Owens’ efforts have been augmented by President George W. Bush’s “Leave No Child Behind Act,” which places a premium on standardized test scores and categorizes schools based on their performance.Beyond general complaints about the value of standardized testing as an assessment tool, several teachers at Battle Mountain have cried foul over the content of the CSAP. The test administered at the high school level focuses exclusively on only two subjects: math and English.”Prior to CSAP all disciplines were on an equal playing field,” says a teacher who asked to remain anonymous. “What’s happening is that if you’re not in the CSAP subject area, something like foreign language, physical education, art, history, or anything else, you’ve fallen way down on the totem poll in terms of the importance that the district gives us, because we’re not tested (on the CSAP).”Multiple Battle Mountain teachers, all of whom wished to remain anonymous, and all of whom teach non-CSAP subject matter, complained of a lack of classroom space, lack of funding for books and materials, and an overall lack of respect.”CSAP is a big threat to creativity,” says another teacher. “It is misguided and it attempts to quantify education far too much. Things like this simply can’t be quantified.”There is a general fear among Battle Mountain staff that standardized testing creates standardized students, and therefore a standardized society.Even those who teach CSAP subjects have strong objections to the way the testing is affecting the school. For a number of teachers it is part of the reason they plan on quitting at the end of this year. And, for at least one teacher, the pressure to teach in a standardized forum was too much to tolerate.The standardized teacherLifelong local John Donovan was hardly the standard student. He admits that he had a certain, er exuberance when he was a young student at Vail Mountain School in the early ’80s. Perhaps trombone wasn’t the right instrument for Donovan to play, because the renegade sixth-grader found the slide to be a perfect tool for bumping his classmates in the back of the head during class.On one particular day Donovan earned an ejection from the band room. A few minutes later he found himself to be a guest in the back of David Schindel’s high school classroom, where the animated teacher was giving his usual performance: a boisterous, dramatic re-enactment of the opening of Macbeth that boomed through the walls of the small school and captured Donovan’s imagination.”Right then and there I knew what I wanted to do,” Donovan remembers. “I knew I wanted to teach Shakespeare, and I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.'”Twenty years and two degrees later Donovan had attained his goal. He was teaching Shakespeare to high school students at Battle Mountain.But only a few years after joining the school district’s teaching team, Donovan quit in utter frustration. Standardized testing, he says, was a big part of the reason he left.”As a teacher you have to make a huge decision to teach to the test or teach to the kids,” he says. “I wanted to give these kids some of the meat of life, not this black-and-white test.”As an undisciplined youth himself, Donovan says he felt compassion for the kids who had a lot of potential but didn’t fit into the standardized mold encouraged by the administration. By all other accounts Donovan was an unorthodox teacher, but he says his unorthodoxy worked for the students who reminded him of himself as a youth and who may not have connected with other teachers in the building. He was hoping, he says, to be their Mr. Schindel, and to help them find the same passion for learning he eventually developed.But administrative policy, he says, kept him perpetually short of his goals.”If they’re not going to use me to my abilities and they want me to be a drone, then sure, I’ll be a drone if they want me to,” he says. “But even if I teach to the test, 50 percent of the kids aren’t going to care, or aren’t going to understand the test, and all the sudden the bottom drops out and some politician behind some desk says Battle Mountain test scores are terrible, they must be a terrible school.”Donovan says he was teaching Romeo and Juliet to a classroom that included several children who couldn’t read or understand English. Rather than teach the basics of the language to these children in an effort to raise CSAP scores, Donovan went ahead with a program he felt would enrich the students who were ready, willing, and able to learn.Regrettably, he says, he was forced to leave some students behind.Leaving students behindPrincipal Bullock agrees that CSAP causes great frustration among teachers and administrators alike. But with 28 years of educational service under his belt, he’s not about to quit.”From a teacher perspective, the concept of teaching to the test versus teaching to the student is a very narrow perspective,” he says. “I’m encouraging our teachers to teach to the whole student and to teach in the total depth and breadth of their subject, and then the standards will come.”And Bullock admits that CSAP testing doesn’t gauge a student’s abilities in all areas, “but it’s a reality and we’ve got to deal with it,” he says.Still, he makes a distinction between himself, the state and the feds. While the government higher-ups focus heavily on CSAP, Bolluck says he and his staff have many other assessment tools, and consider these as very important indicators of student success. The CSAP may be the only important assessment tool in the mind of the state, but not to Bullock. To make the best of the situation, he says his strategy is to encourage emphasis on all forms of assessment, whether they are created by the state, district, school or teacher.The strategy, so far, has had positive results. Battle Mountain’s overall CSAP scores have gone up recently, although the complicated breakdown of demographic scores leaves a little to be desired.But not everyone is convinced that the scores are going up for the right reasons. Several sources have come forward to say that the school district as a whole is using other methods to improve test scores.One teacher who requested anonymity, we’ll call her Allison, has written and proctored thousands of tests in her 36-year career as a teacher at multiple high schools and now as an English-as-a-second-language professor at Colorado Mountain College.Like virtually every teacher in the county, Allison agrees that CSAP tests are dubious measures of a school’s intellectual achievement. But as a teacher at Colorado Mountain College she has noticed an interesting development in the demographic breakdown of her classroom since Owens and Bush tied funding to performance on standardized tests.More and more, she says, she is seeing high school-aged students in her CMC classroom, students who have been “pushed out” of public schools in order to raise test scores.”What’s happening is that the students on the bottom end of the test scores are being advised to take classes at CMC to get their Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED) or to join the alternative school,” she says. “It’s a huge issue and it’s going to get bigger.”It is already an issue for Janet Rivera, a former school-board member who currently teaches a GED course at CMC. Rivera says her son, who was, “An ‘A’ student in auto-tech, weight-lifting, woodworking and broadcasting, but mostly a C-student in traditional courses” at Eagle Valley High School in Gypsum was under heavy pressure to leave the school and follow another course. Part of the reason councilors tried to push him out, she says, is because he would not do well on the CSAP.”I thought about the photos in the hallway of the school of past graduates,” Rivera says. “My son had 12 aunts and uncles, 12 first cousins, a dad, and a sister on those photo boards. I decided that he would have his picture put up as an EVHS grad also. I refused to move him.”It was Rivera’s right to keep her son enrolled at Eagle Valley. But many parents, says CMC’s Allison, aren’t aware of their right to enroll their student in the public school in their area, where a wider breadth of classes, especially in mechanical skills, and a sometimes favorable social environment prevails.The practice is reportedly happening at Battle Mountain as well, as evidenced by young student enrollments at CMC, but there is very little paper trail left behind in such a situation, and as of yet no BMHS parents have come forward to tell a story similar to Rivera’s.The benefit to the school is a higher overall test score and a greater graduation rate, because students who are advised to leave the school in such a manner don’t count as drop-outs.”The only real proven way to raise standardized test scores is to cut out (the bottom group),” says another anonymous teacher. “It’s very simple because it’s a truism.”The teachers interviewed for this article agree that Bush’s Leave No Child Behind Act accomplishes exactly the opposite of its stated goal, culling out the students who don’t fit the traditional mold and leaving them out of public schools.At the end of the dayWhen another bell rings the students rush into the classrooms, and the hallways are quiet. Each glass window of a classroom door is a portal into a different world: in one a laboratory is bubbling over with experimentation, in another an animated teacher is working to keep attention focused on reading, in another a group of bleary-eyed teenagers is struggling to comprehend a lecture.”This is still a good school, this is still a great school,” says one teacher. “Miracles happen here every day, and these are the kinds of things you don’t hear about.”The same sentiment is echoed by every teacher still working at Battle Mountain, and by Bullock, too. There is a great confidence in the future of Battle Mountain, and a general feeling that the obstacles presenting themselves to the school today will be overcome, if not by administrative policy, then by the sheer will of the teachers who work in the classroom.But the group of men and women who staff the school are noticing a trend in American education that is as real in the classrooms of Battle Mountain as it is anywhere in the country. The difference between one classroom and another is growing smaller, as is the difference between one student and another, one teacher and another, and one administrator and another. But teachers seem to love to point out that schools are not factories, or businesses to be measured in terms of productivity and efficiency. In the world of education, which must by definition cope with every kind of human being that walks through its doors, many believe that creative (even brilliant) but unorthodox students and teachers are being shunned in favor of standardization and rote thought.And CSAP is only a part of the movement. Next week, The Vail Trail looks at the Teacher Assessment Program, a controversial new policy that will be implemented (along with other surprising new changes) at Battle Mountain next year.


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