Put to the test

When administrators at Renton High School in Washington were finalizingcourse schedules for the 2004-2005 school year, they were faced with severaldiscouraging realities. A growing number of freshmen and sophomores neededpreparation for the state’s standardized test. 

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

Now, students returning to RentonHigh School this fall will not be offered a journalism class. The paper’sadviser and journalism teacher, Hilari Anderson, will instead teach core Englishclasses. Students have the option of creating a newspaper through anafter-school club, but it is unknown how many will be able to participatebecause of other extra-curricular commitments. 

“That list [ofoffered courses] is sort of driven by the amount of students who signed up orwhether or not those classes do anything to get students ready for state testsand national requirements,” district spokesman Randy Mathesonsaid.

An increasing number of high schools have canceled journalismcourses in which students create a publication in favor of traditional Englishcourses 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 teachershortages. 

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

“There are no questions on the GQE (HighSchool Graduation Qualifying Exam) about journalism,” Principal LeightonTurner explained to The Indianapolis Star. The stories of thoseschools and countless others have been relayed to Diana Mitsu Klos, the seniorproject director for the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ highschool journalism program. They reflect an increased pressure on schooladministrators to “teach to the tests,” often to the detriment of journalismprograms and student publications, she said. 

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

If true, experts say students andadvisers should closely scrutinize such decisions and offer arguments for theeducational values of student journalism. What many administrators failto realize, say journalism educators, is that taking journalism courses has beenproven to result in higher standardized test scores. 

Journalismstudents do better

Students who took journalism writing coursesscored higher on the Advanced Placement exams in English language andcomposition than students who took AP or honors English courses, according toresearch in a 1994 book co-authored by Jack Dvorak, “Journalism Kids DoBetter” and articles published in the journal Journalism and MassCommunication Educator. These students also scored higher on collegeentrance exams such as the ACT.

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

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

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

Sophomores in Washington must take the Washington Assessmentof Student Learning exam. Though test scores were not yet available for lastschool year, during the five previous years, a smaller percentage of Renton HighSchool students met standards in reading, writing, listening and math comparedto state averages. 

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

“Federal law seeks toensure that all students meet minimum standards,” she wrote. “Mostdistricts, in their desperate rush to improve the performance of strugglingstudents, have forgotten or ignored their obligation to students who exceedstandards.”

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

When otherreasons exist to cancel courses

Donald Hoang, the incoming editor ofThe Talking Stick, said he still does not understand why administratorssay canceling the journalism course will help reduce class sizes or improve testscores. He wants the course to be reinstated instead of turning the newspaperinto an after-school activity.

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

The senior said hethinks the paper is being relegated to a school club because of previouseditorials critical of the principal’s changes to a graduation ticketpolicy. 

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

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

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

Shortlyafterward, parents were able to convince school board members to keep thecourse, but a new teacher was named to replace Campagna, who had more than 18years of experience in journalism education. Campagna said she suspectedshe was replaced because administrators did not like that she stood up forstudents’ rights to publish investigative or sometimes controversialcontent. As a result of the adviser change, the newspaper has declinedin quality, she said. 

Stories are insufficiently sourced, and opinion pieces arenot clearly labeled, she said.

“This is censorship at its mostinsidious,” she said. “The story about the Washington paper is a sadoutgrowth of the proliferation of incompetent administrators who simplydon’t understand education.” 

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

How and why to protectjournalism

Though there have been no national studies on canceledjournalism courses, according to a 1993 study by Mary Arnold at the Universityof Iowa, 42 percent of high school newspapers that were shut down citedgraduation requirements as one of the causes.While it is not a violationof First Amendment rights to cancel a student publication for reasons notrelated to content, most schools still allow student-produced independentpublications to be distributed on campus according to school policies. 

If administrators are considering cutting a publications classspecifically to better prepare students for standardized tests, advisers shouldlook at exam objectives to determine how their courses prepare students forspecific goals, suggested a high school newspaper adviser inTexas.

“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 coursesinclude abilities to understand and analyze diverse texts and literary elements.The other half of the objectives include abilities to write effectivecompositions for specific purposes, demonstrate a command of English usage andedit writings for clarity and effectiveness. 

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

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

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

Compromise at Renton High School

WhileMatheson has said the fate of the journalism course has been sealed for the fallsemester, Hoang said he still hopes that public pressure might convinceadministrators to change their minds.Hoang, along with several othernewspaper staff members, spoke at a school board meeting to express theirconcerns about the class. 

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

“Acredible, independent voice, The Talking Stick, is a resource forstudents to gain information about relevant issues concerning the school and thesurrounding community,” he said. “Removing the journalism program isultimately silencing an unbiased student voice at RentonHigh.”

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