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February 05. 2013 6:37PM

Farmington lawmaker floats idea of making passing grade on school testing mandatory

CONCORD - A state lawmaker who says too many students don't take school testing programs seriously wants to require students to pass standardized tests before they get promoted to the fourth or eighth grade.

While a number of people speaking before the House Education Committee on the bill filed by state Rep. Joseph Pitre, R-Farmington, liked the idea of requiring students to show competence for promotion in school, most found something about the proposal to keep them from backing it.

The bill, along with more than a dozen others, may soon be swept from the legislative agenda to a special study commission proposed on competence-based education.

Pitre's bill would require students to meet state Department of Education proficiency standards before they can move past the third or seventh grades.

"Some will call it 'high stakes testing,'" Pitre said. "It is time to hold students accountable, make the tests meaningful and stop the nonsensical approach to a school system out of control."

Pitre has filed a similar bill requiring high school students to demonstrate academic proficiency to graduate from high school. His proposals are opposed by the state Department of Education, based on concern that making a test the key to promotion may produce unintended and unfortunate results.

"We do recognize a lot of interest in seeing higher stakes for state testing," Deputy Education Commissioner Paul Leather told a House Education Committee hearing. "There is very clear evidence that when you raise the stakes simply of the assessment alone, teachers start to teach to the test which becomes the be-all and end-all."

Leather said research has shown that when passing a state test becomes mandatory for graduation, standards are sometimes lowered so that a minimum percentage of students can pass it.

Using the standardized NECAP tests for promotion from one grade to another is "like taking a blood pressure test to determine IQ," said Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire State School Administrators Association, "It is not an individual achievement test, it is not an individualized competency test."

Joyce said the NECAP is intended to evaluate schools and school districts by studying a compilation of testing results, and evaluation of student competency can be accomplished by "other means."

Two mothers of children with special needs also spoke out against the proposed testing, telling the committee of the progress their children made when they attained goals that allowed them to progress from one level to the next.

"If this bill has been the law, he would still be in the third grade, instead of staying with age appropriate peers," said Bonnie Dunham of Merrimack. "Even though Sean can't read, write or do math, he volunteers and is a fully participating member of the community."

Progressing through school with his age group, Dunham's son has earned a varsity letter as manager of his high school basketball team, volunteered with a number of service agencies, worked for the past 11 years at a Wendy's restaurant. He has voted in every election since he became eligible, while also dictating letters to the editor urging others to remember to exercise that fundamental right, she said.

"None of the volunteer agencies where Sean works are in the habit of calling in third graders," Dunham said "I think (failing to achieve academic promotion) definitely would have been a barrier, so say nothing of his self-esteem, being the only person in third grade shaving."

Jennifer Bertrand of Mont Vernon, a parent of a daughter with a profound intellectual disability, also told the committee of the progress her child made by staying with her peer group as it progressed through the public schools.

"While it has really good intentions, it has unintended consequences for children with disabilities like my daughter," Bertrand said. "She certainly is an individual who may never show competency at a third grade level academically, but when she has appropriate support she achieves some monumental things and works harder than any seventh grader I know."

As the House education panel considered the proficiency testing proposal, Senate counterparts were talking about sweeping a variety of education reform bills in to a single special committee that would study how to implement competency-based learning in the state.

Several witnesses backed the proposal for a 36-member study commission that would include representatives of groups ranging from parents to lawmakers to the state higher education chancellor. Suggestions for adding members to represent the home-schooled and charter school segments would swell the size of the panel to 40.


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