P-5 Legislation Foreshadows Ominous Trends in MPS Curriculum: An Anaylsis

Last year when the State Assembly and Senate passed new legislation to give increased monies to certain Milwaukee elementary schools, few people realized the impact such a law would have on the entire school district. 

This year many third, fourth, and fifth grade teachers in the affected schools are beginning to question the wisdom of the legislation. This P-5 (preschool through fifth grade) statute targeted 14 elementary schools with low achievement scores, and allocated between $100,000 to $150,000 to each school for additional programming. Next year 30 schools might participate.

Part of the law stipulated that the students in the recipient schools be tested in all subjects, including reading, math and language in third grade and science and social studies in fourth and fifth grade.

New Curriculum for MPS?

Top administrators’ enthusiasm for this project extends beyond just the handful of P-5 schools.’ By September 1987 MPS will have implemented what is being called an “objective-based curriculum”, which establishes goals and objectives for each subject area from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Teachers will be held accountable for teaching the objectives and all students will be tested regularly in all subject areas with objective-referenced tests.

Central Office personnel state that a key reason for this major change is pressure the schools have been receiving from the business community. Additionally “there are now six or seven hundred thousand items available on a single compact disk… and the research department… has the capability for the development of customized objective-referenced tests,” Notes from the January 20, 1987 City-Wide Testing Program Advisory Committee, go on-to state that “the primary impetus for this (objective-referenced test capability) was the necessity to include objective referenced tests as part of the P-5 evaluation.”

Curriculum specialists at Central Office spent the last year writing “Program Intent Documents” which contain the objectives for each subject area from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Recently MPS established curriculum outcomes “filtering” committees so “objectives will be pared down so that there is sufficient instructional time to adequately address all objectives.” These “filtering” committees consist mainly of teachers, although according to one member they appear “to be a rubber stamp of what Central Office has already decided. We aren’t given release time to actually have a voice in these matters. I’m not sure I want my name associated with this.”

P-5 Testing Sets the Example

A closer look at the impact of this testing on the P-5 schools can inform us as to what may be in store for all schools.

Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and MPS officials agreed to start, with science testing in this school year and expand it to social studies in the night.

“Sure it sounds good — ‘test the students to make sure schools are doing the job,’” said one teacher from a P-5 school, “but it’s not so simple.”

From the beginning it was quite complicated. Initially DPI and the MPS officials disagreed who was going to write the test, each wanting the other to do it. Once it was decided that MPS was to write the test, four science supervisors and a science teacher were assigned the responsibility.

Tests to Drive the Curricula?

Fourth and fifth grade teachers from P-5 schools attended a one day science inservice where they chose 10 “objectives” out of a larger list for their grade level test. The objectives were based on the grade level book of the Heath basal science series published in Massachusetts. The teacher supervisors then took the 10 objectives and pored through lists of questions purchased by MPS from a national testing outfit, to find relevant questions. Teachers were given a list of the 10 objectives for their grade level and in the words of a workshop participant “we were more or less told to teach to the test. We can’t possibly cover the whole science book and thus we are supposed to focus on those areas which will be tested.”

Considerable amount of teacher supervisor time went into preparing the tests as they made efforts to control for vocabulary and any potential bias in the test questions. Becky Kratz, a fifth grade teacher at a P-5 school, thought the time and money in salaries could have been spent better elsewhere, “We need microscopes, not tests. We need field trip money, not supervisors being paid to develop test questions.”

The wasted time in test preparation is not the only criticism being leveled. A more basic one is how this new legislation passed 90 miles away in Madison is going to affect 5th grade students. Kratz added, “The tests pressure the teachers to teach the text. The text is boring. P-5 isn’t improving education, quite the opposite.”

“What of the energetic intermediate teacher who centers her or his science curricula around overnight camping trips or extensive field trips to Havenwoods, the Audubon Center or Palmyra?” asked another teacher. “What the students learn on those trips about food webs and ecology and interrelationships between plants, animals and the environment is not among the objectives to be tested. I refuse to follow the scope and sequence of such an eclectic and dull text book.”

Others have pointed out that such testing raises the whole issue of who determines the science curriculum in the first place and why it can’t reflect the interests of students more.

Multiple Choice Questions Inadequate

Edward Chittenden, a Research Psychologist for the Educational Testing Service who has done work with assessment of science programs in east coast districts stated, “tests which consist solely of questions for which there is only one correct response constitute an inappropriate assessment model for science education.” Chittenden expresses “concern that testing in this form will necessarily promote the routine, formalized aspects of science teaching, but will undercut science as process — eg. the investigative, experiential components of the science program which entail observation, experiment and field work.” The criterion-referenced testing which is being proposed would “turn suggested procedures for assessment into prescriptions for teaching.”

He advocates using a varied format when assessment is used, in order to go beyond the “limitations of the multiple choice format.” One means he discusses is open ended questions. For example, a student might be able to correctly answer multiple choice questions such as “How many planets orbit the sun?” or “Is a plant a living thing?” but when confronted with more open ended questions such as “List the things in space that revolve around the earth,” or “list five living things on the school playground,” we will get a better sense of what the student really knows. Chittenden does not believe relying on even these types of questions is adequate and suggests other mediums for presenting tests including the use of video and scientific demonstrations and other types of student responses such as graphic and oral. “The most effective testing methods,” he concludes, “will not necessarily be, the most efficient”

It is unclear at this time how the test scores are going to be used. Chittenden cautioned against using them for individual assessment, as he said the questionable validity of such a test should prevent any educator from telling a parent that it is an accurate assessment of their child’s scientific knowledge.

One teacher summarized the whole situation this way: “we have state legislators telling local administrators to construct a test who base their test on a nationally produced basal science series adopted several years ago picking and choosing questions from a nationally published list. We teachers are in turn told to teach to the test using the boring textbook, straitjacketing the classroom science curriculum. I’m not against accountability but this is professional suicide.” He concluded by asking, “Is this what the originators of the P-5 legislation intended?”

Whatever their intentions, in the opinion of this writer, no matter what happens, those teachers in MPS who approach science and social studies instruction in ways that go beyond the straight “read the text” approach should not be intimidated by this new P-5 testing.

Bob Peterson teaches fifth grade at Vieau Elementary School.