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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)

As before, the system will categorize students as below basic, basic, proficient or advanced, based on their test scores. Last year, students had to score in the 40th percentile to be considered proficient. Over the summer, school officials will determine the new proficiency level for the D.C. CAS.

In switching to a new test, the school system will not be able to make direct comparisons between last year and this year, Caritj said. The U.S. Department of Education told school officials that it should not try to equate the tests, he said, meaning that changes in scores cannot be used to assess whether improvement occurred in the past year.

Still, because the D.C. CAS is designed to be more rigorous, officials believe that many students might score low. In fact, officials said, field tests during the fall showed that the short-answer questions baffled students.

"We found that kids were skipping the constructed-response questions," Chief Accountability Officer Meria J. Carstarphen said. "They had never seen questions crafted and designed that way."

To familiarize students with constructed-response questions, the school system has begun a training program for principals, teachers and even parents.

During last week's break, 14 low-performing schools hosted a "spring camp" to give students practice taking the exam. At Miner Elementary in Northeast, teacher Victoria Pearson told about 10 fifth- and sixth-graders that they could improve their comprehension scores by reviewing questions before reading a passage.

Throughout the year, 15 other schools, including Tubman and West Elementary, also in Northwest, have been piloting another approach to help students reflect more on what they've been taught and not just memorize.

"In public education, we don't ask kids to think," Carstarphen said. "There is little pushing back on a kid to get him to explain, 'How do you know what you know?' "

At West, Jennyffer Diaz's fifth-graders were spread out on blue carpeting as she read a book about the platypus. After completing the passage, Diaz asked the students to split into pairs to discuss unusual aspects of the species' breathing process and differences between the male and the female. Then she told them to write a few sentences about the mammal.

"When I interact with other students, they give me strategies in my writing," said Joshua Leeper, 10.

Irene Parada, also 10, said: "You use your mind. This helps you feel like a part of the story."

Officials at West and Tubman said students are scoring higher on their practice tests, achievement that is spilling over into their classes.

"The kids don't know they're practicing for a test," said Davis, the Tubman teacher. "They do a lot more writing because of this. There's a lot more thinking that goes into their writing now."


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