Beating The Bubble Test

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TESTING FOR TOTS: For the first time even Franklinís first-graders are taking the Iowa exam this year

Here are some of the things kids at Garfield/Franklin elementary in Muscatine, Iowa, no longer do: eagle watch on the Mississippi River, go on field trips to the University of Iowa's Museum of Natural History and have two daily recesses. A sensible bargain has been struck: literacy first, canoe trips later. But there are more substantive losses too. Creative writing, social studies and computer work have all become occasional indulgences. Now that the standardized fill-in-the-bubble test is the foundation upon which public schools rest — now that a federal law called No Child Left Behind mandates that kids as young as 9 meet benchmarks in reading and math or jeopardize their schools' reputation — there is little time for anything else.

Franklin is one of the new law's success stories. After landing on the dreaded Schools in Need of Improvement list two years ago, the students and staff clawed their way off it. The percentage of fourth-graders who passed the reading test rose from 58% to 74%; in math, proficiency went from 58% to 86%. Last year Franklin was removed from "the bad list," as one child calls it. Through rote drills, one-on-one test talks and rigorous analysis of students' weaknesses, Franklin has become a reluctant model for the rest of the nation.

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It has also become a very different place. The kids are better readers, mathematicians and test takers. But while Democratic presidential candidates have been lambasting the law's funding levels, Franklin's teachers talk of other things. They bemoan a loss of spontaneity, breadth and play — problems money won't fix. The trade-off may be worth it, but it is important to acknowledge the costs. This is the story of an elementary school — once an uneven patchwork of lessons and projects — that has been rationalized.

Franklin began reforming itself before President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind in January 2002. The school, two 1950s-era brick buildings in this old Mississippi River town on the eastern edge of Iowa, had been on a lower-profile statewide watch list because of below-average scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Then it was grandfathered onto the list of schools that failed under the new federal criteria. That public branding, along with the threat of new sanctions, layered on the anxiety. "When [Franklin] was listed in the Des Moines (Iowa) Register as a failed school, it became a slap in the face," says fourth-grade teacher Randy Naber.

A whole string of embarrassments followed. The school, which runs from pre-K through fifth grade, had to tell parents that their children had the right to transfer elsewhere. Without improvement, Franklin would have had to offer free tutoring and bring in outside experts. After that, it could have been taken over by the state and the entire staff replaced.

Teachers in Muscatine had become accustomed to low scores. About 40% of Franklin's students are from Hispanic families in which English is often not the main language spoken at home, and 66% of the school qualifies for free or subsidized lunches. Franklin is in the South End, a worn section of Muscatine where the smell wafts over from a factory that makes Heinz purple, green and "mystery" ketchup. Most of the parents work in local factories or service jobs. "We had a long-term problem here," says Jane Evans, curriculum director for the district. "The school's culture was, 'Our kids are different. They can't do it.'"

But partly out of fear and mostly out of pride, the teachers and students haltingly remodeled their school for the era of testing. Franklin came under a sort of efficiency audit more common to FORTUNE 500 companies. Reading in particular became a science. Teachers read much more nonfiction to kids, since that is a major focus of the test. Students began using computerized reading programs that administered regular quizzes. Just before February testing, kids on the borderline were pulled aside for daily test-taking strategy sessions. All children were assigned adult mentors, drawing on everyone from the principal to a custodian (who turned out to be among the best mentors at the school) to offer yearlong support, including test-prep talks. Teachers asked kids as young as 7 to sign forms to accept the challenge of raising their scores and reminded them to drink juice instead of soda to keep their stamina up on test mornings.

Teachers, meanwhile, added three to four hours to their workweeks, including two additional hours of training. The curriculum was standardized and shaped around the testing schedule. "We were amazed when we aligned our math curriculum — amazed at the things we weren't teaching prior to the test," says Jan Collinson, Franklin's principal since 2002. She also went after the no-show students. After three absences, parents began receiving letters. For kids with perfect attendance, there were parties every six weeks, featuring praise, cookies and the occasional magician.

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