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Improvement on Tests More Telling Than Pass Rates

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By Jay Mathews
Monday, April 20, 2009

Sarah Fine, a 25-year-old English teacher at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School on Capitol Hill, vividly recalls a conference with the mother of a 10th-grader who read at a third-grade level.

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"Shawn is a real asset to our class because he's so well behaved," Fine told her, "but I think he might need some extra support to get him up to speed in reading."

The mother said she had heard that before. Shawn had received help in middle school through special education. "But let me tell you, it don't do no good, because the problem is that he's plain lazy," Fine quoted her as saying. "He's failing every one of his classes. You got a solution to that?"

In an essay for Teacher Magazine last month, Fine said the mother's response made her want to squirm. "Shawn's problem is not that he is lazy," she wrote. "To the contrary, when I ask him to read in class he sits quietly, moves his eyes over the words, and laboriously tries to answer whatever writing prompt follows -- despite the fact that the text makes no sense to him. The real issue is that Shawn's deficits make it impossible for him to pass the DC-CAS test given to 10th-graders in April, and so my school, consumed by the imperative to make 'adequate yearly progress,' has few resources to devote to him. He does not qualify for our English Academy program, which targets students whose reading scores indicate that a 'push' might enable them to pass the test, and we do not have a reading specialist because there is no funding for one."

I have been hearing for some time about this practice of devoting special attention to what are called the "on-the-bubble" kids. They are close to scoring proficient on the annual test, which affects the school's rating under the No Child Left Behind law. Some schools give them extra teacher time, leaving less help for lower-performing students, such as Shawn, who have no chance of increasing the passing rate. I sometimes shrugged this off as just one more sign of poorly led schools. A good principal, I said, would put an end to such nonsense.

But Fine's story surprised me, because she is working at one of the city's best-led public schools. Its founder, Irasema Salcido, has made great strides with impoverished children. That Salcido and her team hired Fine, one of the best writers I have seen among full-time teachers, indicates their good judgment. So does their decision to use Fine as a department chair and teaching coach in her four years at the school. So if focusing on bubble kids was standard operating procedure at Cesar Chavez, it was a bigger problem than I thought.

In a March 18 commentary for Education Week, Fine said the emphasis on passing scores has corrupted attitudes about everyday assignments. "When I return papers to my students," she wrote, "they look immediately to their number grades to see if they crossed the 'passing line,' which they have come to view as the ultimate referendum on their performance. Students who have made impressive progress but did not pass have eyes only for their failures, and highly skilled students who pulled off C's high-five each other because they 'didn't fail.' "

"This is not to say that I believe the No Child Left Behind Act has done more harm than good," Fine wrote. "To the contrary, I have seen the accountability movement inspire my school to become more rigorous and student-focused." But, she wrote, "an enormous amount of excellent work gets buried by the system's fixation on failure." It would be better to credit the school for important successes outside of testing, Fine wrote, such as "when a teacher energizes a reluctant reader to tackle a novel, when a struggling math student starts coming after school for tutoring, when an administrator finally gets a troublemaker to reflect on her actions."

My first instinct was to suggest that Salcido and others who succumb to the bubble kid fixation cut it out and get back to teaching everybody. That is their job. The best teachers I know find ways to raise the achievement of every child. But if they take my suggestion and their passing rate drops, I am likely to be among the first to wonder whether they know what they are doing.

The best solution, just about everyone agrees, would be to accelerate the expected change of No Child Left Behind to a value-added assessment. Once states and the District improve their computer systems, they can rate each school by how much each child improves, rather than the current method of recognizing schools that reach a designated percentage of passing scores.

There should also be a way to honor Fine's request for an extra dimension, such as reporting a rise in students doing scientific experiments or writing analytical papers. Some monitoring systems, such as those used by International Baccalaureate programs, do that. It is part of good teaching and should be available to everybody.

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com


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