D.C. Schools Gearing Up for Standardized Tests

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 18, 2009

D.C. police will be deployed to pick up truants and deliver them to classrooms. Administrators are urged to schedule testing in the morning when students tend to do better. But not too early for high school kids, not generally known as morning people.

Play classical music at a soft volume, one administrator said in a memo to principals. And don't forget snacks during the test.

The objective of this obsessive preparation is the two-week standardized testing period that begins Monday for grades 3 through 8 and sophomores in public and public charter schools.

The annual exams in reading, math, composition, science and biology will be used by the federal government to gauge which D.C. schools have achieved "adequate yearly progress" as defined by the No Child Left Behind law. Maryland students took reading and math exams last month, and in Virginia, grades 3 through 8 began theirs this month.

In the District, the test -- DC-CAS, short for the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System -- is particularly important because it is one of two tests this year that will provide much-anticipated snapshots of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's progress in her efforts to overhaul the historically underachieving public school system.

A repeat of last year's DC-CAS results, which showed gains in the percentage of students reaching proficiency levels -- including 11 points in math for elementary students -- would provide at least some evidence that Rhee has pointed the schools in the right direction. Higher scores could raise public confidence in the system and strengthen Rhee's pitch to families, now the subject of a radio ad campaign, that it is a legitimate option for their children. The numbers will be available by midsummer.

Rhee, who will complete her second year as chancellor in June, has been publicly cautious about inflating expectations.

"I wish I knew how we're going to do on those tests," she told a D.C. Council hearing last month. She said she was encouraged by results of four preliminary tests that students have taken this year.

"Based on the benchmark assessments we've seen, we're very hopeful about the growth for this year," Rhee said. "But I would never make any predictions off of that."

D.C. schools face a long climb. Last year, only 41 of 126 public schools achieved adequate yearly progress, or AYP, including just three high schools; 18 of 60 eligible public charter schools made the cut. Twenty-nine public schools (down from 50 in 2007) have proficiency rates of less than 20 percent in reading or math.

This winter, fourth- and eighth-graders took the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It tests reading, math and science skills of students in 11 urban school districts, including New York, Chicago and Atlanta. The most recent scores, from 2007, showed D.C. schoolchildren at or near the bottom on every measure. Math results will be released in the fall, and reading and science sometime next year.

For the past 10 Saturdays, 34 District schools have hosted "academies" to help children burnish their test-taking skills. Instructors across the District, even in music and art, have been ordered to provide all of their classes with daily opportunities to practice writing brief essays. Teachers are sifting student work for weaknesses and using their early-morning planning periods to tutor those in need.

Educators are focusing much of their energy on a major weakness reflected in last year's results: written portions of the reading and math tests, called "brief constructed responses." They call for students to answer questions about themes or ideas in passages they have read or to explain how they solved math problems.

For students who do not read on grade level, these tasks are challenging, and that has driven this year's emphasis on "higher-order thinking" to improving performance.

"We're asking students to defend their thinking, to articulate their thoughts and defend them," Rhee said at a recent community forum.

Rhee and her staff are leaving little else to chance. Because test participation rates figure in determining a school's status, D.C. police will help round up truants. In addition to offering cash awards for schools that show 20 percent increases in reading and math proficiency, Rhee has promised money to schools that come up with the best plans for administering the tests, looking at staff training and security.

The level of preparation has sparked what has become an annual debate among parents and teachers about standardized testing. Some assert that too much instructional energy is spent on strategies to raise schoolwide results by tweaking the test scores of "bubble kids" -- those just below proficiency level. The Saturday academy program targeted students in that category, though officials say it was subsequently opened to anyone who wanted to attend.

"Way too much emphasis goes into getting those few kids to score better, while the entire rest of the student population is just put through useless paces," said Virginia Spatz, a schools activist with a son at School Without Walls High School and a daughter at Woodrow Wilson. She said the tests left her sophomore son's schedule "completely whacked out for two days each time."

But test scores have never been much of an issue at School Without Walls, which requires an application for admission and draws students from across the city. More than 90 percent were proficient in math and reading in 2008, and the school has made AYP every year since 2003.

Others say that for many students from low-income backgrounds who have struggled academically, the test is a critical gateway.

"Are we teaching to the test? Of course we are," said Brearn Wright, principal of Truesdell Education Campus, a Petworth school with pre-K through seventh-grade students, more than half of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches.

"But we firmly believe this is a good test. We want to prepare our students to be successful in college and life. This test is the precursor to the SAT, the ACT and the MCAT. If they can be successful in this test, they are on their way."

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