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States seeking test exemption

UNITED STATES. Backlash grows against rigid new assessment system. Stephen Phillips reports

Mounting opposition is threatening to derail President Bush's attempts to roll out an accountability regime in America's schools.

With the deadline looming for US schools to introduce annual reading and maths tests for eight to 13-year-olds, and similar high-stakes tests for older pupils by 2005, lawmakers from Nebraska, Alaska and Montana are demanding exemption from the White House mandate, citing logistical and financial difficulties.

Relief may be at hand from proposed legislation in Congress, backed by headteachers and America's National Parent Teachers Association, that would extend waivers to education authorities demonstrating academic progress by other yardsticks.

The Bush administration has vowed to oppose the so-called Student Flexibility Act of 2003, billed by its Democratic sponsors as a bulwark against the White House's testing zeal.

But the bill taps into a broad groundswell of opposition across the American education community to make-or-break tests to determine students'

academic progress and whether schools face punitive sanctions.

Much of the backlash against the Bush plan has centered on its emphasis on multiple choice formats, seen as dumbing down education. Existing accountability schemes, spanning classroom assessment as well as standardised tests - introduced by states like Connecticut and Maine under their own steam before the Bush reforms - would be considered valid academic benchmarks under the bill, said Gerald Tirozzi of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, one of its sponsors.

"In this zealous pursuit to get everyone tested, it doesn't make sense to dismantle progress already made towards accountability," said Tirozzi, who was deputy US schools minister under President Clinton.

Disillusionment with testing runs deeper, though.

A survey of 4,200 teachers, published by Boston College's National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy in March, found that 40 per cent of those already facing high-stakes testing felt their instruction had been narrowed as a result and that tests were not a good gauge of learning.

In Florida, meanwhile, public anger boiled over into street protests when 12,500 high school seniors learned they would not qualify for a high-school diploma after flunking the tough new school-leaving exam.

Students staged classroom walkouts to join parents picketing school gates last week. And community leaders called for consumer boycotts across the state over the controversial new Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Failures were heaviest among black and Hispanic students attending the state's poorest schools, critics said, blaming Governor Jeb Bush for inadequate funding. Many face the forfeiture of university places, job offers and military enlistment.

FCAT supporters concede the sudden hike in academic standards may have caught out test-takers, while the accompanying intensification of instruction came too late in their school career to help them prepare better.

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