New D.C. Test Demands More Than Circling an Answer

Meria J. Carstarphen, the school system's chief accountability officer, spends time at West Elementary School in Northwest. An experiment that found that students were confused by the new test's format led to training sessions.
Meria J. Carstarphen, the school system's chief accountability officer, spends time at West Elementary School in Northwest. An experiment that found that students were confused by the new test's format led to training sessions. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006

Washington students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10 face a new standardized exam next week -- one embraced by many but not all teachers -- and the drilling for it has long since begun:

Seated on a multicolored rug, Monica Davis's fifth-graders followed the words from an overhead projector while she read a story about an insensitive ferret who insulted his friend, an overweight pig.

Davis posed questions, spurring the students at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Northwest Washington to discuss such weighty topics as body image and judging people by what's inside them.

"Now I want you guys to think about all the things we've talked about. We are going to get on our swing, take these ideas and roll with it," Davis said. By now, the students know that her whimsical parlance means to pull out their black-and-white-covered composition books and write a few sentences about what the story teaches them about life.

The exercise is one of many methods being used to spur high achievement on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System -- nicknamed D.C. CAS -- that replaces the long-standing Stanford 9 exam.

Students will notice a key difference on the new test: In addition to multiple-choice questions, it includes many "constructed response" questions, requiring them to explain in three or four sentences how they arrived at their answers. The Stanford 9 test was entirely multiple choice.

The Stanford 9 analyzed the performance of D.C. students based on the achievement of their peers across the country. The new exam will bring the system into compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires systems to replace such "norm-referenced" tests with exams that measure students against what they are taught in their classrooms.

The federal requirement went into effect last year, and the D.C. system had to pay a $123,000 fine for missing the deadline. D.C. school officials said they needed the extra year to align the new exam with reading and math standards, curricula and textbooks introduced in the fall.

D.C. CAS's short-answer questions will allow schools to gauge higher-thinking skills, said Bill Caritj, assistant superintendent for educational accountability and assessment. "You can ask the students to analyze and compare," Caritj said. "We want them to describe what clues suggest what an author's purpose is. We want to try to get them to think for themselves."

Some teachers, though, say a national test might have more validity. Erich Martel, who teaches world history at Wilson Senior High School in Northwest, said he is skeptical of the District's efforts to produce the test in-house and its ability to objectively evaluate the students' written responses.

"I definitely think they need to have a national reference. Otherwise, you have no way of judging the level of performance," Martel said. He added that the desire for students to do well "may push someone to a subjective evaluation that may not be warranted."

D.C. students have traditionally ranked below average on the Stanford 9 and other norm-referenced tests, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Last year, 81 of 147 schools were listed under No Child Left Behind as "in need of improvement" for failing to make adequate yearly progress. Schools on the list for three or more years are subject to punitive action, including having their principals and staffs replaced.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company