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When consensus is not really consensus

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Give Avron Fogelman credit for this much: At least he forced Memphis to face up to the consequences of standardized testing and put forward a clear, if politically unpopular, way to respond.

That's more than Memphis City Schools superintendent Johnnie B. Watson, the board of education, and some kibitzing state lawmakers did this week. Instead, they veered into the safe harbor of political correctness by bashing Fogelman, challenging the validity of standardized testing, parsing the meaning of the word "failing," and blaming optional schools. In a key public test of his leadership on the testing issue, Watson straddled the fence.

As everyone now knows, Fogelman, an outspoken Memphis businessman and state board of education member, suggested the bar be lowered for Memphis City Schools on the Gateway tests required for graduation three years hence. Or else, he suggested in light of available evidence including recently released school report cards, seven out of 10 students could fail.

At Monday's board meeting, Lora Jobe submitted a letter to the state board objecting to Fogelman's suggestion. Her colleagues unanimously signed on. But sometimes unanimous agreement is not what it seems.

Jobe wants Memphis students to pass the tests, period. With help, she believes, they can do it. The Class of 2005 gets three chances a year to pass Gateway tests in algebra, English, and biology. Jobe said it would be "an insult" to lower the standards for MCS.

Sincere as they come, Jobe is possibly not the best person on the board to act as spokesperson for a hard-line position on testing. She and colleague Barbara Prescott come from the affluent, highly educated Grahamwood Elementary and White Station High School optional school population that breezes through standardized tests. Inner-city schools with a high percentage of low-income families have a much tougher row to hoe.

Optional schools may even be part of the problem, suggested board member Lee Brown, because they are magnets for high-achievers. Brown, elected to the board last year, wants to take a fresh look at the 25-year-old program, acknowledging that his own children were among its beneficiaries.

Board member Carl Johnson questioned the validity of standardized testing which grades students and schools on a bell curve so that 50 percent are either "low-performing" or "failing." Johnson said his problem is not so much with the tests as with the "interpretation" of the results, especially when some 75 percent of the students in MCS are on free or reduced-price lunch.

As Johnson spoke, Watson vigorously nodded his assent. Last week the superintendent seemed to react favorably to some of Fogelman's comments, but by Monday he was preaching his familiar theme of "you can't compare city and county schools" and warning of the dangers of "high-stakes tests."

What Watson, or anyone else for that matter, did not do was utter a single word in defense of such tests, which have been a well-established fact of life in Memphis and Tennessee for 10 years. The tests themselves have been studied, revised, studied some more, and revised again. The grading has been fine-tuned. The Gateway tests are not graded on a curve; theoretically, at least, everyone can pass. A passing score in biology, for example, is a mere 22 out of 62 questions. And, yes, it is possible to flunk the course and pass the test and graduate.

Why should Watson rise to the defense of testing? Because for better and for worse, preparing for such tests is now a standard part of the curriculum in every city school. A case can be made that the curriculum is test-driven. Some optional students begin practicing for college entrance exams in the seventh grade. Elementary schools identify the specific skills that will be on the standardized tests and give students test-taking tips and practice. Watson himself unilaterally threw out his predecessor Gerry House's free-lancing "reforms" in favor of a more standardized curriculum in elementary reading and math in an effort to raise test scores.

One of the calmest and most sensible comments at Monday's board meeting came from the youngest member, Michael Hooks Jr. He suggested inviting Fogelman to come and have his say. If Fogelman will do that and stick to his guns instead of bending to political pressure, he could prompt a useful civic discussion of such questions as why more than 60 Title I schools in Memphis are NOT on the failing list, why a school that raises its scores from a 25 to a 49 should be called a failure, and whether the handful of seniors who were denied diplomas this year will be multiplied by 100 or so in three years.

Maybe Memphis will have a graduation debacle on its hands in three years, or maybe everything will be all right. But the possibility of a train wreck is not unreasonable given past performance, and Fogelman should not be vilified for saying so.

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