February 21, 2005
Test preparation is serious business in the East Valley.
Elementary schools in Apache Junction, Tempe and northeast Phoenix have eliminated morning and afternoon recess to make more time for core subjects included on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.
Other schools have scaled back on art, music and social studies.
Students at Gilbert Junior High School carry bubble sheets with them every Tuesday and Thursday and answer multiple-choice questions in each class, including physical education.
Other schools play motivational music and pass out free juice on AIMS days.
But some parents, students and educators say all the focus on test scores might be doing more harm than good.
IN SEARCH OF JOY
East Valley sixth-grader Sierra Schwemm, 12, said the test preparation rituals she endured last year at Tempe’s Meyer Elementary School stripped the joy from learning and left her tired of school. She said students who are trained to score well on a test as their primary motivation often fail to develop a love for learning that lasts into their working lives — when the multiple-choice questions stop and no more points are available to earn.
"All last year, my teachers always made us do bubble sheets, and I never liked reading because of it," she said.
Susan Thomas, a teacher at Conley Elementary School in Chandler, said many educators are as tired of testing as their students.
"It has impacted my joy of teaching and my students’ joy of learning — because they, too, feel the same pressure," Thomas wrote in a recent essay.
Sen. Thayer Verschoor, RGilbert, said he has seen the pressure at his child’s school in Gilbert.
"When AIMS time comes around, it seems like the school shuts down for a couple of weeks while they cram for the test," Verschoor said last week during testimony on a bill he has introduced in the state Senate that would eliminate AIMS as a high school graduation requirement.
State Superintendent of P ublic Instruction Tom Horne, a firm supporter of the standardized testing movement, ag reed that schools can take test preparation too far. But he said most educators find ways to keep the focus on academics without burning out students on bubble sheets and repetition.
Horne said he grew up with high-stakes testing in New York, and this did not inhibit his love for reading that has survived long past his high school graduation. He said he currently is reading a history book on the presidential election of 1800 as well as the latest novel by Tom Wolfe.
"Teachers have to use common sense," he said. "New York teachers understood that, and I think Arizona teachers are just as smart."
‘WE WILL NEVER SELL OUT’
For Sierra, test preparation is no longer an issue.
She now attends Zaharis Elementary School in northeast Mesa, where she lives in a world of books without multiple-choice questions at the end of each chapter.
Her principal, Mike Oliver, has banned test preparation as a core academic subject at Zaharis.
"We will never crumble," Oliver said. "We will never sell out."
Instead of sitting in rows and listening to teachers talk about reading, writing and math, students and staff at Zaharis spend their days in hands-on workshops where they work together as a community of readers, writers, scientists, artists and mathematicians.
They do not review for AIMS, and they rarely fill in bubble sheets except when the state makes them.
"In a workshop, there’s a premium placed on doing," Oliver said. "In test preparation factories, there’s no meaning other than performing well on those worksheets and tests."
The philosophy extends even to Oliver’s youngest students.
First-grade writer Sarah West, 7, experimented with new kinds of punctuation during a writing workshop last week in Gwen Struble’s classroom. Sarah’s tale about an expedition to Antarctica included the following passage: "When I was there studying . . . splash! A pengwen dived into the oshin."
Sarah explained that she saw the ellipses in books by professional writer Virginia Wright-Frierson and decided to try it in her own story.
"Sometimes writers share ideas," Sarah said. "And we’ve been reading lots of books with ellipses."
Student teacher Sarah Loefke from Arizona State University said she has seen incredible things at Zaharis since she started working at the school in January, including a first-grader who just finished Mark Twain’s "Huckleberry Finn."
"This is the way we were taught to teach at ASU," she said. "No other schools in Mesa do this."
ELUSIVE PAYOFF ON AIMS
But the hands-on approach has not produced top-tier test scores.
Zaharis students exceeded state and district averages on AIMS in 2004, but students at neighboring elementary schools such as Las Sendas outperformed them in every category.
Oliver said the results surprised him because he sees his students functioning every day at levels far beyond the state’s academic standards. He knows many people judge schools based solely on test scores, but he said people who take the time to visit Zaharis have a hard time finding fault with his approach.
Zaharis sixth-grade teacher Marci Crandall said she appreciates her principal’s support. Textbooks from the district — which include multiple-choice questions at the end of each passage — sit unused in mint condition at the back of Crandall’s classroom.
"They can do bubble sheets," Crandall said. "But I don’t think that’s the most important thing. I want my students to love reading."