Put to the test

Standardized testing may soon become the excuse most often cited by high school administrators for canceling journalism courses and silencing student expression

When administrators at Renton High School in Washington were finalizing course schedules for the 2004-2005 school year, they were faced with several discouraging realities. A growing number of freshmen and sophomores needed preparation for the state’s standardized test. 

Class size requirements forced administrators to utilize nearly all available classrooms and teachers. Then there was the journalism class. Its students produced an award-winning newspaper, The Talking Stick, but to administrators, the course was just an English elective. 

Now, students returning to Renton High School this fall will not be offered a journalism class. The paper’s adviser and journalism teacher, Hilari Anderson, will instead teach core English classes. Students have the option of creating a newspaper through an after-school club, but it is unknown how many will be able to participate because of other extra-curricular commitments. 

“That list [of offered courses] is sort of driven by the amount of students who signed up or whether or not those classes do anything to get students ready for state tests and national requirements,” district spokesman Randy Matheson said.

An increasing number of high schools have canceled journalism courses in which students create a publication in favor of traditional English courses that some say will help better prepare students for standardized tests. At Hartsville High School in South Carolina, all English electives, including journalism, were cut because of low student test scores and teacher shortages. 

At Franklin Community High School in Indiana, the newspaper class was cancelled when administrators shifted courses to focus more on a state test required for graduation. 

“There are no questions on the GQE (High School Graduation Qualifying Exam) about journalism,” Principal Leighton Turner explained to The Indianapolis Star. The stories of those schools and countless others have been relayed to Diana Mitsu Klos, the senior project director for the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ high school journalism program. They reflect an increased pressure on school administrators to "teach to the tests," often to the detriment of journalism programs and student publications, she said. 

If the trend continues, high-stakes student testing may replace school budget cuts as the most often cited excuse by administrators for eliminating publication courses. Some student journalists fear that the real reason some schools cancel publication courses is to stifle student expression. 

If true, experts say students and advisers should closely scrutinize such decisions and offer arguments for the educational values of student journalism. What many administrators fail to realize, say journalism educators, is that taking journalism courses has been proven to result in higher standardized test scores. 

Journalism students do better

Students who took journalism writing courses scored higher on the Advanced Placement exams in English language and composition than students who took AP or honors English courses, according to research in a 1994 book co-authored by Jack Dvorak, “Journalism Kids Do Better” and articles published in the journal Journalism and Mass Communication Educator. These students also scored higher on college entrance exams such as the ACT.

“We’ve done a number of research studies that show that high school journalism is equal to or exceeds standard English [courses],” said Dvorak, an Indiana University-Bloomington professor and director of its High School Journalism Institute, recently. “Journalism students’ writing skills, their sensitivity to audience, their use of grammar, punctuation, spelling, their concern with accuracy, their use of sources -- all of these things tended to be significantly higher in their performances.”

At Renton High School, the students who were interested in the journalism class were mostly higher-achieving upperclassmen who did not need help with exam scores, but Principal Kathryn Hutchinson had to consider the ninth and 10th grade students who needed test preparation, Matheson said.

“Students have to pass state tests and, of course, now No Child Left Behind requirements,” he said, referring to the federal No Child Left Behind Act. “Those are the students who are going to need the most help. Those are the students who don’t write as well. They don’t read as well.”

Sophomores in Washington must take the Washington Assessment of Student Learning exam. Though test scores were not yet available for last school year, during the five previous years, a smaller percentage of Renton High School students met standards in reading, writing, listening and math compared to state averages. 

During the 2002 to 2003 school year, only 56.5 percent of Renton High School sophomores met standards for the writing section of the test compared to 60.5 percent statewide. Only 47.3 percent met standards for the reading section compared to 60 percent statewide.Margaret DeLacy, a board member of the Oregon Association for Talented and Gifted, wrote recently in Education Week that federal education laws are forcing administrators to focus on minimum standards rather than provide for more advanced students. 

“Federal law seeks to ensure that all students meet minimum standards,” she wrote. “Most districts, in their desperate rush to improve the performance of struggling students, have forgotten or ignored their obligation to students who exceed standards.”

DeLacy cited a study by William Sanders, who developed the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System to measure student achievement, which found a “lack of accelerated course offerings and concentration of instruction on the average or below-average student.”

When other reasons exist to cancel courses

Donald Hoang, the incoming editor of The Talking Stick, said he still does not understand why administrators say canceling the journalism course will help reduce class sizes or improve test scores. He wants the course to be reinstated instead of turning the newspaper into an after-school activity.

The school has already hired an additional language arts teacher, Hoang said and Matheson confirmed. The teacher should be able to teach an additional five English classes.

The senior said he thinks the paper is being relegated to a school club because of previous editorials critical of the principal’s changes to a graduation ticket policy. 

In 2002, the school district implemented a prior review policy after the paper published a political cartoon that some administrators felt was racist. Hutchinson also has been sarcastic with student journalists during interviews and would not discuss school policies with them, Hoang said.

“She doesn’t want to answer any questions of school policy,” he said. “What our paper does is report the truth.” 

Matheson denied those charges. When Ronnie Campagna, a former newspaper adviser at San Marin High School in California, heard about the changes to Renton High School’s journalism program, it reminded her of a situation at her school last year. The journalism course that produced The Pony Express was set to be canceled for budget reasons. 

Shortly afterward, parents were able to convince school board members to keep the course, but a new teacher was named to replace Campagna, who had more than 18 years of experience in journalism education. Campagna said she suspected she was replaced because administrators did not like that she stood up for students’ rights to publish investigative or sometimes controversial content. As a result of the adviser change, the newspaper has declined in quality, she said. 

Stories are insufficiently sourced, and opinion pieces are not clearly labeled, she said.

“This is censorship at its most insidious,” she said. “The story about the Washington paper is a sad outgrowth of the proliferation of incompetent administrators who simply don’t understand education.” 

Hoang said he is worried that many of the students who work on The Talking Stick would not have time to participate in newspaper in after-school format because many are involved in student government or athletics that meet in the afternoons. He also said class time was especially important during the fall semester because it helped train new staff members. 

How and why to protect journalism

Though there have been no national studies on canceled journalism courses, according to a 1993 study by Mary Arnold at the University of Iowa, 42 percent of high school newspapers that were shut down cited graduation requirements as one of the causes.While it is not a violation of First Amendment rights to cancel a student publication for reasons not related to content, most schools still allow student-produced independent publications to be distributed on campus according to school policies. 

If administrators are considering cutting a publications class specifically to better prepare students for standardized tests, advisers should look at exam objectives to determine how their courses prepare students for specific goals, suggested a high school newspaper adviser in Texas.

“I feel I could defend my kids and my program by citing TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) objectives we use every day,” said Laura K. Negri, who teaches at Alief Kerr High School.

In Texas, half of the six objectives listed for 10th and 11th grade English courses include abilities to understand and analyze diverse texts and literary elements. The other half of the objectives include abilities to write effective compositions for specific purposes, demonstrate a command of English usage and edit writings for clarity and effectiveness. 

“It could be argued that writing for a high school newspaper or yearbook is superior preparation in the last three objectives because it involves a real-world situation,” Negri said. “Journalism students are not writing for their teacher, or for some anonymous grader somewhere in Austin, but for a real audience to whom they have an obligation of accuracy and accountability, as well as good grammar and sentence structure.”

Still, many administrators say the number of students they must prepare for exams outweighs the benefits to the smaller group of students who are on publications’ staffs.To this, Klos, who has helped establish student newspapers at schools around the country, suggests that advisers emphasize the values a student-produced newspaper at a school can have -- even for students who do not work on the paper. 

“Any school that has a free and fair scholastic press benefits all students because they are all reading, and they are all engaged,” Klos said. “It’s more important then ever for young people to become discerning consumers of media, and the time that needs to start is when they are in school.”

Compromise at Renton High School

While Matheson has said the fate of the journalism course has been sealed for the fall semester, Hoang said he still hopes that public pressure might convince administrators to change their minds.Hoang, along with several other newspaper staff members, spoke at a school board meeting to express their concerns about the class. 

Though the principal denied two requests to meet with the students about the course, they were able to meet with Lou Pappas, the executive director of secondary education. On the last day of the school year, Hoang distributed fliers to students and parents, asking for advice or help in reinstating the course and urging them to contact school officials. Matheson said the school plans to offer the course during the spring semester, but Hoang said that did not ease his concerns.

“A credible, independent voice, The Talking Stick, is a resource for students to gain information about relevant issues concerning the school and the surrounding community,” he said. “Removing the journalism program is ultimately silencing an unbiased student voice at Renton High.”

SEE: “Journalism students performance on Advanced Placement Exams” by Jack Dvorak, Autumn 1998 Journalism & Mass Communication Educator

Fall 2004, reports