Miss Ratliff's room: Put to the test 

              Everyone has a stake in the results of a single standardized exam at Grant School 

                  April 9, 2000

                  BY JEFF SEIDEL
                  FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

                  About 30 minutes before her students arrive at Grant
                  School, Miss Roslyn Ratliff stands in a corner,
                  sharpening a box of No. 2 pencils. She is tense and
                  nervous, cranking the handle, pushing the pencil
                  harder, her stomach churning, her thoughts spinning.

                  Feeling helpless.

                  This is it.

                  There is nothing else she
                  can do to prepare her class
                  for the Metropolitan
                  Achievement Test, or
                  MAT, a standardized test
                  her third-graders will take
                  for the next five days to
                  measure their strengths and
                  weaknesses against other
                  third-grade students around
                  the country.

                  It is their test, but it is also

                  If they fail, Miss Ratliff
                  believes, she will have

                  She feels miserable,
                  coughing and sniffling,
                  fighting a lingering cold. She
                  refuses to call in sick. That's
                  out of the question.

                  Today is too important.

                  This week is too important.

                  She grabs a piece of chalk
                  and writes a note to her
                  students: "Good morning.
                  MAT Testing Begins! Good

                  She draws a smiley face
                  and then adds one more
                  line: "Believe in yourself and
                  you will do a great job."

                  Miss Ratliff pauses and
                  looks at the board. The
                  message is crucial. She
                  doesn't want to scare the
                  27 students in her room.
                  She wants to create the
                  right tone, getting them
                  pumped with confidence
                  before they take the MAT.

                  Miss Ratliff is hot and
                  uncomfortable. She turns to
                  open the window -- only to
                  realize she opened it a few
                  minutes ago. She looks at
                  the test instructions. Again.
                  This is the first time she will
                  administer the MAT and
                  she doesn't want to make
                  any mistakes. Paperwork is
                  spread across several
                  desks. A letter from Juanita
                  Clay Chambers, an
                  associate superintendent for
                  Detroit Public Schools,
                  reminds teachers to
                  maintain "the highest levels
                  of test ethics."

                  The bell rings and the
                  students rush up the stairs.

                  Miss Ratliff stands by the
                  door, sending the children
                  into the classroom. They
                  have been preparing for this
                  test all year, following the
                  core curriculum while
                  focusing on specific skills
                  they need to improve based
                  on last year's results.

                  Nothing is left to chance.

                  The school held a MAT rally -- complete with
                  cheerleaders, skits and posters -- to relieve some of
                  the anxiety and to get the children excited. Principal
                  Mildretta Hughes told the children to get a good
                  night's sleep before taking the test, to eat a good
                  breakfast and to get to school on time.

                  Although the MEAP is the test that gets all of the
                  headlines because it allows comparison between
                  districts in the state in select grades and subjects, the
                  MAT is the test that directly affects Miss Ratliff's
                  classroom. It is the test that takes a snapshot, every
                  year, of every student in science, math and reading.

                  Miss Roslyn Ratliff leads her class from the auditorium after a rally
                  to promote this month's MAT testing.

                  This year, as the district struggles with reform, the
                  results from this test will thunder through the entire
                  educational system.

                  Everybody has something at stake: from an
                  8-year-old in Miss Ratliff's classroom, to Miss
                  Ratliff, to principal Hughes, to the administrator in
                  charge of testing.

                  Amena Turner is a smart, bright student who hides
                  in a quiet shell.

                  She earned a 3.6 grade-point average last quarter,
                  one of the highest in Miss Ratliff's room and a source
                  of tremendous pride for Amena's mother, after
                  whom she is named.

                  In many ways, Amena is a model student. She helps
                  her classmates, has perfect attendance and has a
                  supportive mother, who keeps Amena's report card
                  in her purse to show off to her friends.

                  But Amena struggled on the MAT last year. She
                  tested below grade level in reading -- a full grade.
                  Miss Ratliff can't figure it out. Maybe Amena had a
                  bad day or maybe she just doesn't test well. Miss
                  Ratliff doesn't know, but she has several children in
                  her class whose MAT scores don't reflect how they
                  do in class.

                  This year, Amena must place in at least the 11th
                  percentile of national test takers or she will be
                  required to attend summer school under a new
                  promotion policy. If she doesn't do well in summer
                  school, she will not be promoted to the fourth grade.

                  The pilot program affects children in second, third,
                  fifth and eighth grades. The district expects 30,000
                  students to be sent to summer school if they don't
                  meet requirements for the MAT, attendance or

                  But Amena's mother thinks that's a good thing.

                  "I want her to go to summer school," she says.

                  Just to keep her safe.

                  For Amena, going to summer school at Grant, on the
                  east side of Detroit, would be safer than playing in
                  her front yard. She lives next door to an abandoned
                  building that was used as a crack house last summer.

                  Last year, Amena's mother tried to get her children
                  into the summer program at Grant. One day, she
                  walked up to the school and tried to enroll them but
                  was told the program was full.

                  "During the summer, they are sitting around on the
                  street," her mother says. "They aren't doing anything.
                  There are dope dealers running up and down the
                  street. I don't want my kids just sitting there. I want
                  them to do something."

                  Amena's mother is strict with her children, four of
                  whom live in the small, three-bedroom house. After
                  school, she makes them do their homework before
                  going outside to play.

                  Amena's mother sees something special in her

                  "They got it in them," she says. "They got it in them.
                  They don't do drugs. They know who is doing

                  Come summer, she just hopes her children are
                  someplace safe.

                  Anywhere but home.

                  Even though Amena Turner is a good student, she has struggled on
                  the MAT and may have to go to summer school.

                  Before handing out the tests, Miss Ratliff has the
                  class repeat its mantra: "I will say only positive things
                  to people ...I will work hard and get smart."

                  She has them do 15 jumping jacks to release some
                  stress, and she joins in, making everyone laugh.

                  Miss Ratliff reads the instructions and starts the test.

                  The children are scattered across the room, spaced
                  apart to prevent cheating. Miss Ratliff hopes, prays,
                  for the children to take their time, for the results to
                  show what they know, for the test to show what she
                  has taught them.

                  Miss Ratliff walks around the room with Angela
                  Mason, who works in her room for two hours every

                  During the reading portion of the test, some of the
                  students are taking their time. Miss Ratliff sees them
                  reading the stories, going back and reading them
                  again, a good sign.

                  But she notices something else. A couple of the
                  children are flying through the test way too fast. She
                  wishes they would slow down and take their time.
                  But she can't say anything.

                  She looks around the room and hopes they are
                  reading, really reading, the stories, not just skimming

                  An entire year of teaching comes down to this

                  Miss Ratliff is convinced she has done a good job of
                  teaching this year. She has followed the core
                  curriculum. She doesn't think there is anything on the
                  test that will surprise her students. Last fall, Miss
                  Ratliff was part of a group of third-grade teachers
                  who went through their students' MAT results and
                  tried to come up with strategies to improve.

                  "If too many of my students are failing, it's me," she
                  says. "It's not them. I didn't get the point across."

                  Miss Ratliff looks around her room. She is pretty
                  sure that four children are not reading at grade level,
                  but the MAT will confirm it. The test is designed to
                  sort students by their skills and knowledge.

                  Miss Ratliff is confident they will do well in math.

                  She spent 12 weeks on multiplication, refusing to
                  move on until almost everybody had mastered it.
                  When they started with division, they grasped it

                  Just in the nick of time.

                  Multiplication and division are both on the MAT.

                  But she has concerns about science. It is one of her
                  least favorite subjects.

                  Overall, she's confident, but her enthusiasm is
                  tempered with the reality of what is at stake.

                  "They will look at the results in June and say, 'Did
                  you do what you are supposed to do? Were you in
                  that class, playing around or were you teaching?' "

                  Principal Mildretta Hughes sits in her cramped
                  office, looking at last year's MAT results. She is not
                  satisfied. Far from it. Last year, 31 percent of
                  Grant's elementary students scored a satisfactory
                  level in reading, 24 percent in math and 18 percent
                  in science. In a district where some schools have
                  only 5 percent of their students scoring in the
                  satisfactory level in a certain subject, Grant's
                  numbers aren't that bad.

                  But Hughes is under pressure to raise the test scores

                  In seven years, her children have to climb to the 50th
                  percentile in all three categories or she could be
                  fired. That's a tremendous challenge, considering that
                  Grant improved only 2 percent in reading last year, 3
                  percent in science and fell back 4 percent in math at
                  the elementary level.

                  Hughes feels pressure every day to raise the scores.

                  "We have a lot of barriers to student learning,"
                  Hughes says. "It's almost as if we are supposed to
                  ignore those barriers. We feel pressured. In return,
                  we are pressuring the teachers and the teachers are
                  pressuring the students."

                  The barriers start at the most basic level. There are
                  children at Grant who come to school only to get a
                  hot meal and to use a working toilet.

                  There are others, a great number in the lower
                  grades, who enter school without the proper skills.
                  This year, half of the first-graders enrolled in school
                  after skipping kindergarten. Many of those showed
                  up without knowing their letters or numbers or
                  colors, putting tremendous pressure on first-grade
                  teachers, who are forced to give them a crash
                  course on things they should have learned the year

                  The Grant School cheerleaders strut their stuff during the MAT
                  rally. The rally was designed to relieve some of the anxiety and get
                  the children excited about the test.

                  The first-graders who continue to lag behind are sent
                  to two reading-recovery specialists, who try to bring
                  them up to grade level, a program that has proven
                  extremely successful.

                  The one-on-one attention is something that Hughes
                  is thinking of expanding throughout her school.

                  "We have to make some leaps and bounds," Hughes
                  says. "I've thought about next year, taking a
                  seasoned second-grade teacher and having them
                  work like a reading recovery specialist, pulling the
                  children aside and giving them some extra work."

                  Hughes uses the MAT results to determine the
                  strengths and weaknesses in her school.

                  Last year, her fifth-graders did worse than any other
                  grade, but she believes the problem was the
                  teaching. None of the fifth-grade teachers were
                  certified -- all of them were substitute teachers. But
                  she has fixed that. Last summer, she was able to fill
                  those positions with certified teachers, and she
                  expects the test results to rise.

                  She is confident it can be turned around.

                  "This is a marvelous staff we have here, at Grant and
                  throughout Detroit public schools," she says. "We
                  want to do a good job. With all of the obstacles that
                  we have, I think we are doing a good job."

                  On the eighth floor of the Schools Center Building,
                  Juanita Clay Chambers is trying to squeeze another
                  minute into an hour that has already passed.

                  She works at a frantic pace, meeting with teachers
                  and principals and administrators and researchers
                  and parents, trying to make sure everybody
                  understands the sweeping changes that David
                  Adamany, interim CEO of Detroit schools, has

                  Clay Chambers is in charge of MAT testing, the
                  promotion policy, summer schools, classroom size
                  reduction and a few more things she can't remember
                  right now.

                  "Books," she says, thinking of another thing. "I'm in
                  charge of getting textbooks to all schools, keeping
                  the materials fresh. Making sure ..."

                  She stops for a moment, the thought left unfinished,
                  as a grandfather clock begins to chime -- one, two
                  -- there is never enough time for a district on
                  deadline, trying to improve under the gun.

                  About 140,000 Detroit children in grades 1-10 are
                  taking the MAT test this year. Chambers is
                  preparing for 30,000 children to be sent to summer
                  school. The summer school classes will be small,
                  with as few as 10 students per class, and studies
                  have proven that children in those situations quickly

                  Which will only help next year's test results.

                  Clay Chambers uses the data to spot gaps in the
                  curriculum and to choose textbooks.

                  There are some negatives to the MAT test. It is not
                  as tightly aligned with the curriculum as it should be.

                  But there are strengths: The district can compare
                  results against young people from around the
                  country, and it allows them, every year, to assess
                  each student's growth.

                  "When I look at my data, I know that I already do a
                  better job in grades one and two," she says.
                  "Generally, we are doing pretty good at the lower
                  grades. It starts to drop off in grades six through
                  eight across the board. As they progress through the
                  grades, they seem to do worse. We are really
                  starting to get many efforts to the middle and to the
                  high school for this reason."

                  At the district level, the administrators believe there
                  is a healthy way to look at test results. It is critical
                  for a school to look at the results and do something
                  with them, as they do at Grant.

                  But there is also an unhealthy way to use the results:
                  to let the numbers suggest whether it is a good
                  school or a good teacher. The tests were never
                  designed to do that.

                  "Time," Miss Ratliff says.

                  The testing is done for the day.

                  Some children are frustrated because they didn't get
                  through it.

                  "That's part of the test," Miss Ratliff tells them. "They
                  don't expect you to know everything on this test. If
                  you do, you are a genius. It's OK if you don't know
                  this. They purposely put some hard ones on it."

                  They spend the rest of the day winding down, trying
                  to get rid of the stress by playing math games. After
                  lunch, they start working on a science project to
                  study the growth of mold on wet bread.

                  Miss Ratliff gives two pieces of bread to each group.

                  She turns around and a group is laughing and making

                  "What?" Miss Ratliff says.

                  She looks back at group two and both pieces of
                  bread are gone.

                  The children plead ignorance, but their faces are
                  stuffed and they are trying to swallow.

                  She starts laughing and the kids are laughing.

                  And everything is back to normal.

                  A teacher and her kids.

                  All of the stress has disappeared.

                  Her cold has gone away and she starts to feel better,
                  comfortable and confident.

                  "Overall, I think my children will do well," Miss
                  Ratliff says. "They weren't surprised by anything on
                  it. I know what I taught them. We have reviewed.
                  They know it. You have to believe in yourself. I
                  think they are doing well."

                  She won't know for sure until June, when the test
                  results come back a few days before she lets them
                  go for summer vacation.

                  Or summer school.

                  JEFF SEIDEL can be reached at 223-4558 or at