More than a test, SATs judge the way schools are looked at

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 6, 2003

It is 10:30 Friday morning and, while he is doing his best not to let it show, Gerald Shirley is beginning to develop a case of the pre-game jitters.

Shirley is the principal at Selma’s School of Discovery. Come Monday, he will commence four hours of testing spread over four days that will be used to judge his performance for the entire school year.

More precisely, it is Shirley’s students who must sharpen their No. 2 pencils and sweat through the four units &045;&045; reading, math, language and social studies &045;&045; that make up the 10th edition of the Stanford Achievement Test, known in education circles as simply SAT-10.

Like a coach before the big game, Shirley has devised a year-long game plan intended to prepare his students for just this window in time.

For weeks he has drummed into his students the importance of this test to their academic futures. He has drilled them in the fundamentals of attendance, paying attention and reading, reading, reading.

He has walked a fine line between getting his team psyched up for the big game and taking care that they do no peak too early or too late.

As is the case with many other schools, much of Discovery’s curriculum for the entire year has largely been dictated by this one test. But students are not the only ones feeling the pressure. Shirley’s career could also hinge on the outcome. Should his students consistently perform poorly, he could be transferred or even given another job assignment.

Now, on the eve of the big game, he can only wait and hope that his game plan is adequate.

To provide that final boost of motivation, Shirley has scheduled a pep rally for later in the day. It is designed to celebrate not athletic prowess but academic achievement. If all goes according to plan Discovery’s students will go home this weekend fired by the idea that there are other places in life to excel than a football field or a basketball court.

The SAT-10 is a state-mandated assessment test administered each year to all students in grades three through eight. It is the yardstick against which not only a student’s progress is measured but that of the school as a whole as well.

Educators have long debated the relative merits and shortcomings of standardized tests. And while a generally accepted consensus has yet to emerge, this much is certain: they won’t be going away anytime soon.

Standardized tests have evolved a great deal in recent years. No longer are they comprised chiefly of questions that require mere recall of memorized facts. Today’s tests are designed to measure a child’s ability to think critically and to solve problems.

Explains Shirley, &uot;It is no longer enough to know that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Increasingly, children are being asked to demonstrate at least some knowledge of why Columbus came to America in the first place.&uot;

The tests are administered under tight security which rivals that now in place at the nation’s airports.

Test booklets are numbered and records kept as to what teacher in what school is responsible for what numbers. Nor are copies of any test allowed to be made. Because the tests are administered over a span of four days, test booklets are handed out at the beginning of each day and collected again at the end of that day’s testing.

The booklets are then secured each night for safe-keeping.

Implementing those security measures and seeing that they are followed is the job of Penny Williams, testing coordinator for Selma City Schools.

Among the advantages of standardized tests such as the SAT-10 is that they can be used to help determine an individual child’s needs. &uot;If a student is weak in certain areas and strong in others,&uot; Shirley says, &uot;it allows us to craft an individual instructional plan geared specifically for that child.&uot;

One of the chief disadvantages, of course, is that not every child does well on standardized tests. That is why Shirley argues that no single test should ever be used to justify placing a child in a special education curriculum environment.

Nor, he adds, should a single test be used to evaluate a teacher’s performance for the entire year.

Discovery’s overall grades on last year’s SAT tests ranged from C- to C to C+ &045;&045; a fact which prompts Shirley to quietly but firmly observe, &uot;The teachers here and I like to feel that we’re better than a ‘C.’&uot;

That’s because no matter how well a test may measure such things as critical thinking, much of what takes place in a classroom cannot be measured.

How does one measure, for example, the amount of effort needed to involve a student who comes from a broken or abusive home? How does one measure the effects of a lifetime of deprivation on a child’s performance in school?

By the time the pep rally finally rolls around, Shirley has mastered his pre-game jitters. Or perhaps it is just that he has resigned himself to his fate. While the Discovery student body begins to join in the mounting enthusiasm of the moment, Shirley can be seen leaning quietly against one wall of the school gymnasium, wrapped in his own private thoughts.

After spirited performances by the Selma High School drum corps and dance team, Selma Mayor James Perkins Jr. takes the microphone.

He begins by telling the story of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, and of how she once explained her extraordinary courage in the face bigotry and discrimination by saying simply that she was &uot;sick and tired of being sick and tired.&uot;

Perkins pauses to let the words sink in. Then, in the voice of a Baptist minister calling sinners to repentance, he thunders:

The students erupt in pandemonium. The bleachers shake under the impact of hundreds of feet. The noise from the cheers and the shouts rolls out the doors and into the quiet streets outside.

To one side, arms folded silently, Gerald Shirley looks on.