WASHINGTON -- Don't tell Rocco Ferretti that standardized tests are ruining education.
Ferretti, principal of Bodkin Elementary School in Pasadena, Md., says the tests are improving teaching and showing students how to solve real-life problems.
"I think it just changed the rules, but it didn't squash creativity," he said.
President Bush is signing education legislation today to require public schools to test students in reading and math in grades three through eight.
Supporters say the expanded testing will give parents and school officials information needed to help improve schools. Critics say it will crowd out subjects not on the tests, cost too much and stifle creativity.
Federal law already requires periodic testing in several grades. Under the new measure, the annual scores for the first time could affect a school's federal funding. Schools with persistently low test scores would get extra money, but low-achieving poor students could use part of it for tutoring or transportation to another public school.
If scores don't improve over six years, schools could be closed, then reopened with new teachers and administrators. Schools would have 12 years to get students reading and doing math proficiently.
While virtually all states have uniform standards for schools and most test students annually in several grades, only 15 states test students in grades three through eight. Ratcheting up their testing programs could cost billions of dollars.
Supporters say the tests -- a cornerstone of school reforms in Texas while Bush was governor -- are essential to knowing where money and effort must be directed to help struggling students.
"This will give schools much better and much more detailed data about what's working and what's not, with much more precision than they've had in the past," said Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, a Washington group that advocates for urban and minority students.
But critics say the program could spell disaster for states and school districts as they struggle to develop new annual tests for millions of students by the 2005-2006 school year. They must develop science tests in three grades the following year.
Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, said the bill will strain the capacity of the testing industry and "wreak havoc" in schools.
"It should be called the 'Leave No Child Untested Act,"' he said, playing off Bush's education rally cry, "Leave no child behind."
Schaeffer and others say that, far from showing schools where to invest, more testing will simply take funding and attention from programs that aren't on annual tests.
"If you're going to be rated at a minimum in the media and perhaps face reconstitution based on your year-to-year progress, what is measured becomes what is taught," Schaeffer said. "It forces other stuff out of the curriculum."
He also said testing struggling students in the same subjects year after year won't help them improve. He likened it to "hitting them with the same stick more often."
Others, such as Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Roy Romer, say states will simply begin "gaming the system," lowering their standards so more students pass the tests.
Recent case studies of teachers in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Washington show that beginning teachers warm up to standardized tests more easily than experienced teachers. New teachers say the tests give them needed goals and structure, while veterans say such tests foster competition and don't always square with their teaching philosophies.
Ferretti said he likes the Maryland tests because they ask teachers to focus on applying basic skills to real-world problems. In a recent test for third-graders, he said, students puzzled over how to build a swing set featuring six swings out of a coil of rope and other materials.
"They need to know their times tables," he said. "They're going to double the cost of rope because there are going to be two ropes on each swing."
Still, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP, is high-end testing. Given in six subjects to students in third, fifth and eighth grades, it features none of the multiple-choice questions that characterize most assessment tests. Instead, students write brief essays, draw charts and maps and work out simple science experiments.
"It's a very rich assessment system," Schaeffer said of MSPAP. "That's not what this bill calls for."