Test Scores Provide Valuable Measure Of Success in D.C.
Brian Betts, a new principal in one of the District's most troubled neighborhoods, excitedly displayed his school's latest reading test results. Tall green bars on the graphs meant that in some classes a majority of students were proficient. This was big news for Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson, an amalgam of two campuses where failure had been the norm.
Betts's reaction to the quarterly results came in a rush of teachers' names, explosive interjections and expansive adjectives: "Anita Walls! Boom, boom, boom! Unbelievable! Brian Diamond! Boom, boom, boom! Fantastic!"
He had not felt so giddy the week before, when his unit tests -- written by his teachers -- showed that students were still struggling in the mid-to-low-C range. Most of Shaw's faculty members are new to the school, and many are new to teaching. That makes the school a crucial experiment for D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. She has put extra resources into it and given Betts, 41, extraordinary power to make his own rules, with the help of two teaching stars he recruited from Montgomery County. But in mid-January he was worried.
"I thought people were feeling a little demoralized, because the honeymoon was clearly over. The kids are continuing to test boundaries," he said. At Shaw and many other schools, test scores dictate the mood. The encouraging results from the districtwide BAS (rhymes with pass) tests trumped the mediocre unit test scores. The BAS tests in reading and math are designed to check student preparation for the all-important, year-end Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS) tests. They were "a shot in the arm," Betts said.
Parents and educators who decry the rise of testing will cringe. Why, they ask, does everything have to revolve around multiple-choice assessments? (The BAS, which takes about eight hours over two days, has some essay questions, as does the DC-CAS, but is mostly multiple choice.) What happened, these skeptics ask, to helping students explore literature, mathematics, history and science and letting their conversations and writing reveal how much they learned?
There are two problems with this critique. First, for the vast majority of students, particularly in the Shaw neighborhood, that golden age of deep learning never existed. Schooling in America, with bright exceptions, has been shallow, unimaginative and easy for students to avoid by not showing up to class. Second, in an age of data-driven teamwork in business, science and politics, education could not avoid the 21st-century impulse to measure results and galvanize groups of experts to improve performance.
At Shaw, this means that teaching coaches are key. Carol Cienfuegos, 30, and Marco Martinez, 28, said they were drawn to the excitement of Rhee's effort to lift schools out of the doldrums through lively instruction, with teachers sharing ideas and focusing on weak spots in regular testing.
Martinez, a graduate of Montgomery's Paint Branch High School and Virginia Tech, has college-educated parents. Cienfuegos does not. In her last two years as a student at Laurel High School in Prince George's County, Cienfuegos lived on her own and had an afternoon job to pay bills. She also co-captained the school soccer team and earned a 3.78 grade-point average to get into the University of Maryland.
As coaches, they rarely do pep talks. During meetings one day in the school's blue-walled professional development cohort room, they acted more like interested colleagues, listening as much as suggesting. They are also responsible for helping teachers on 90-day plans, the term for those whose performance has not met Rhee's heightened standards. Each teacher on that list has an individualized improvement plan, 20 to 40 pages long, and must show by May (the end of 90 teaching days) that he or she is reaching every child.
Reactions to the 90-day plans vary, Betts said. Among his three teachers in jeopardy, he said, one was trying hard, "one is painfully resistant, and one . . . well, it depends on what day it is."
Cienfuegos and Martinez said they talk to the three teachers every day. They start with good things they see and then make polite suggestions. Outside experts, including university professors, also work with teachers.
Betts said he liked the fact that the unit tests written by his teachers, with help from Cienfuegos and Martinez, proved more difficult than the BAS. "Thank you for not dumbing it down," he told them.
To these teachers, in their test-driven world, making the exams too easy would have been betraying their students. Whether staying tough will remake Shaw's reputation, and give Rhee's program a boost, will have to wait for the next sheaf of BAS result graphs and the length of those green bars.