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Charlotte Amalie
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District Tests Elicit Testy Debate

March 15, 2005 – St. Croix Board of Education Chair Judy Gomez was adamant about keeping the public hearing Tuesday focused on the district-wide standardized final tests instituted three years ago in math and science at the high school level. Yet, even keeping that focus, the debate raised a broad range of questions. Were teachers doing their jobs? Were administrators doing their jobs? Were St. Croix students the victims of federal mandates?
For the first part of the three-and-a-half-hour hearing the administrators took the hits as parents and teachers testified about the tests that count for 10 percent of a student's grade. Complaints were made that teachers did not know what was going to be on the tests and, in consequence, students were tested on material that was not covered in their courses. Board members were also lambasted for not acting on eliminating the tests earlier. The board suspended the tests at its last regular meeting. (See "Board of Education Suspends St. Croix Exam").
Mary Moorhead, a parent and former teacher, was one of the early testifiers. She has been approaching the board and administrators since last summer trying to get something done about what she sees as unfair tests. She commended the board on its suspension of the tests, but she asked that the board go further and recalculate the scores of students who took the tests and had them incorporated in their grades.
The last part of the hearing had the testimony of Lauren Larsen, deputy commissioner of curriculum and instruction, who said the tests were part of an effort to bring St. Croix high schools up to higher standards with "a rigorous curriculum." Education Commissioner Noreen Michael did not attend the hearing. In a letter read at the beginning of the meeting, she wrote she had a prior engagement and asked that it be rescheduled for a different night.
Parents and teachers questioned why this "rigorous curriculum" was being fostered on St. Croix and not on the St. Thomas/St. John School District.
Another divide also seemed to exist between the St. Croix high schools. Most of the teachers and parents among the 50 people who attended were from Central High School, although there were a couple from the Educational Complex.
Allen Woods, who teaches chemistry at Central and has taught for 30 years, said he had never seen anything like this. He said, "I do not comprehend how this is helping our kids. This is hurting them."
He said, not only did the students and teachers not know what was going to be on the tests, but the tests were "seriously flawed." He said he did not think anyone had proofread the tests, and diagrams were mislabeled. He said his best student and his worse student got the same grade on the test.
Moorhead's main complaint was that because the tests covered areas that students did not cover in class, many good students were getting knocked down in their grade point average. She said, "Even one percentage point can make a big difference to students in getting scholarships and getting into college."
Gregory Tyler, a counselor at Central, echoed most testifiers when he said, "Assessment is good. It is needed." However, he added, "Once you put something on a student's official transcript it is what the colleges and the people awarding scholarships see." He said that, in times of rising costs for a college education, students "needed every penny they could get."
A couple of parents recited grades of students who during the year averaged high Bs or As, but then failed the final exam.
Tyler and several Central teachers questioned whether administrators were doing anything to use data from the tests to improve the education of students.
Larsen countered statements by teachers who said they had no input on the exams. He prefaced his presentation by saying, "We have to be honest here. We have to work with the facts."
He said that the initiative was part of a St. Croix initiative to bring up the standards of the schools. He said teachers had always been a part of that initiative that included curriculum guides concerning what content needed to be taught. He also said that teachers from both Complex and Central were invited to take part in supplying questions for the tests and in grading the tests.
It came out in his testimony and that of other administrators, that only one substitute teacher from Central chose to take part in the grading process. The other teachers came from Complex.
Many teachers did not find the $16 per hour stipend for three days of six hours of grading to be attractive.
Sen. Terrence Nelson, a former teacher married to a teacher, voiced concerns about the relationship between teachers and administrators. He said, "A lot comes down the chute, but nothing goes up it."
Larsen said the issue was "emotionally charged," and "For some reason this community is apprehensive about testing. Testing is part of life."
The meeting did have some emotionally charged moments.
Tyrone Molyneaux, president of the St. Croix Teacher Federation, wanted to respond to comments made by Gomez. She said he could not. He continued anyway. Gomez smacked her gavel down and called for a recess.
Gomez also had to quiet the audience a couple of times when the administrators were presenting their views.
Questions were raised whether the board should have approved the district tests before they were implemented. Larsen indicated that he did not believe that was necessary because they replaced final tests that the students already knew they would have to take.
In the end, Gomez termed the hearing "very informative." She said the board would review what it heard and then decide which direction it wanted to go.
Anyone who wants to submit written comments about the tests to the board is invited to do so within the next five days.
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