DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now, a story about young people in Baltimore, students at Northwestern High School. This coming week, they'll be taking the Maryland High School Assessment - a set of tests that determines whether schools are meeting state and federal guidelines.

NPR's Larry Abramson has been spending time at Northwestern, a struggling institution, and he's found that these tests have preoccupied the administration there for the entire year. Here's his report.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Northwestern High School has virtually no chance of meeting Maryland's minimum standard for academic improvement. But that doesn't matter. The High School Assessments, or HSAs, are a really big deal at schools like Northwestern. In fact, they're a much bigger deal at schools with low scores, because these tests offer some hope. That's why Northwestern is pulling out all the stops.

Ms. BREANNE BAYSHORE(ph) (Teacher, Northwestern High School): The question is: how have the powers of the president been limited? So you want to explain and then give details and examples that we talked about.

ABRAMSON: Teacher Breanne Bayshore is helping her students bone up for the HSA in government. She's drilling them on material they've already studied in regular classes. At the same time, she's unscrambling the jargon of the HSA, explaining, for example, what's expected in a brief constructive response, or BCR.

Ms. BAYSHORE: So, if you think about it, we just put this one topic, and we're able to think of at least four examples that we would be able to talk about if that was a BCR question.

ABRAMSON: Two to three times a week, certain students are pulled out of their regular classes and put into these special test preparation sessions. Principal Tajah Gross says they are chosen because they're believed to be just the hair's breadth away from passing the HSA.

Ms. TAJAH GROSS (Principal, Northwestern High School): These students have been recommended by their HSA teacher as students who have the best chance of really performing and meeting state standards on the high school assessment.

ABRAMSON: For Gross and her team of administrators, these extra classes are part of a concerted effort to respond to pressure coming from Washington D.C. and from Annapolis. But Leslie Wilson of the Maryland Department of Education says, in fact, these tactics should not be necessary.

Ms. LESLIE WILSON (Maryland Department of Education): I definitely think that we would prefer that school systems consider the entire school year as preparation for the test as part of the regular curriculum.

ABRAMSON: And some experts believe this kind of test preparation does real harm to the testing process itself. Professor David Koretz of Harvard University says when you push students over the bar, you're basically destroying the value of the test. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Professor DANIEL Koretz of Harvard University]

Professor DAVID KORETZ (Harvard University): If it's done intensively, it inflates them, produces gains in test scores that are much larger than the real increases in student learning.

ABRAMSON: Koretz says the need to cram for tests is a sign schools are being asked to do the impossible.

Prof. KORETZ: If somebody walked into my class and said we want dramatic changes, we want them every single year - if the changes they ask for are big enough, I won't have a legitimate way to create them, so I'll cut corners.

ABRAMSON: Foes of the federal No Child Left Behind Law say special cram courses are symptoms of the testing mania that has infected American education. Even defenders of No Child Left Behind agree pulling kids out for extra help defies the spirit of No Child Left Behind.

Ms. AMY WILKINS (Principal Partner, Education Trust): What people are, sort of, doing is rather than saying we're going to have teachers that can teach all kids, they're pulling the classes apart now and saying, you get this, you get that. I'm not sure that's really the way to do this.

ABRAMSON: Amy Wilkins is with the Education Trust, a think tank that has backed the federal and state standards behind these tests. She says tests like Maryland's are actually too easy. So if kids need special help to pass, something is dreadfully wrong.

Ms. WILKINS: Some localities have made very, very good choices. Other schools and districts have made bad choices for these kids. So I don't think it's an indictment of the law. I think it's an indictment of the lack of resources that we have for teachers and principals and superintendents.

ABRAMSON: Regardless of what testing experts say, Principal Tajah Gross can't get away from this simple fact.

Ms. GROSS: All the staff, as well as students, understand that we have a lot riding on the high school assessment.

ABRAMSON: That means whatever the long-term impact, teachers here and elsewhere will continue to do what's needed to get test scores up. If you ask them why, many teachers will say they have a responsibility to give the students a chance to succeed.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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ELLIOTT: Coming up, Evangelical leadership after Jerry Falwell. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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