Testing Change Raises Scores

By Michael Alison Chandler and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 28, 2008

A switch in testing for students who are learning English fueled a rebound in scores this year for immigrant-rich schools in Northern Virginia that had failed the year before to meet targets set under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Scores dipped last year when the federal government for the first time required Virginia school systems to give English learners the same reading tests as classmates who speak English fluently, a mandate that local educators vehemently opposed as unfair.

This year, federal officials allowed the state to assess thousands of English-learning students through portfolios of their work over the school year instead of through the state reading test. The results announced yesterday marked another turn in the national debate over the best way to test millions of students who are new to English.

"We are now using an appropriate test," said Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale. The new assessment "more accurately reflects their learning of English and reading skills," he said.

In the region's largest school system and across the state, scores on the spring Virginia Standards of Learning tests climbed in almost every subject area and for most racial and ethnic groups.

Statewide, 84 percent of students passed the standardized math exams, a four-point increase over the previous year. And 87 percent passed the reading tests, a two-point gain. In both subjects, African American and Hispanic students made the greatest gains, narrowing the gap between them and white students.

The results mean that the state and several Northern Virginia school systems, including those in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties, reached targets the state established to comply with the federal law. For Loudoun, it was the first time its schools, as a whole, met the benchmarks.

Under the law, schools and school systems must meet steadily rising goals on reading and math tests on a path toward 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Certain groups, including ethnic or racial groups and students from low-income families, also must make gains. This year, the number of schools that failed to meet benchmarks dropped sharply in some places, from 71 to 55 in Fairfax, 14 to 9 in Arlington County and 13 to 3 in Loudoun. Those that receive federal poverty aid and fail two years or more in a row face sanctions.

This year, schools faced a tougher challenge because the state raised its targets: 75 percent of students were required to pass math tests and 77 percent were required to pass reading tests. Four years ago, the benchmarks were 59 percent and 61 percent, respectively.

"There has been a ratcheting up of expectations. We are making progress toward the 100 percent proficiency goal," said Billy K. Cannaday Jr., state superintendent of public instruction. Strong performance across minority groups, he said, showed "we are not simply trying to teach to some children; we are trying to teach to all." Statewide, the portion of English learners who passed reading tests increased by 12 percentage points over the previous year's scores. In Fairfax, the rate rose from 68 percent to 84 percent; in Loudoun, from 61 percent to 75 percent.

Only students in the earliest levels of English instruction were eligible for the alternative assessment.

Shelley Loving-Ryder, assistant superintendent for student assessment and school improvement in Virginia, said the gains were not solely attributable to the new test. She said that about 5,400 of 48,250 students with limited English proficiency took the alternative reading assessment. About 3,600 of them were from Fairfax. (Certain English-learning students with disabilities not included in those tallies also took the alternative assessment.)

The portion of limited-English students who passed the regular grade-level reading test also rose, from 64 to 75 percent, Loving-Ryder said.

At Westlawn Elementary in Fairfax, 92 percent of 147 English learners passed in reading, up from 68 percent last year. But more than 40 percent of English learners tested took the alternate assessment, and all passed with an advanced score.

The portfolio assessment, which a state official said the federal government approved last summer, requires teachers to compile completed assignments that show how well students have learned grade-level reading standards. If students do not understand a concept, teachers can work with them until they show proficiency.

In Arlington, the reading pass rate for English learners jumped 12 points, a gain partly due to strong scores among students assessed on portfolios. But Mark Johnston, Arlington's assistant superintendent for instruction, said he doesn't think performance on the portfolio assessment is a good yardstick of how English learners are progressing.

"It's a stretch to say that's a good measure of grade-level reading," Johnston said. He said many worksheets and other materials the students use are below grade-level. However, Johnston said, the regular test also is not valid for many English learners.

In many cases, Fairfax officials said, portfolio assessments are the right tool. Dale said it's more fair to assess "a collection of student work," rather than only looking at how they perform on "one day."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company