Testing Strategies Also Helped Boost D.C. Students' Scores

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009

When Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced the continued growth of standardized test scores for District students Monday, he hailed it as "powerful evidence of the incredible work being done by teachers, principals and most importantly our students."

What Fenty did not say was that the two-year improvement in District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System results -- including an average of nearly 15 percentage points in the pass rates on elementary reading and math tests -- was also the product of a strategy that relied on improved statistical housekeeping.

These include intensive test preparation targeted to a narrow group of students on the cusp of proficient, or passing, scores, and "cleaning the rosters" of students ineligible to take the tests -- and also likely to pull the numbers down.

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee described some of these approaches as the pursuit of "low-hanging fruit."

The initiatives are neither novel nor improper. They've been in the toolboxes of urban school leaders since the inception of the No Child Left Behind Act. The law requires schools to show annual progress toward a goal of all students passing reading and math tests by 2014.

Rhee, who says she would like to see the law amended to emphasize year-to-year academic growth, said this week that much of what she had done was a matter of common sense.

"In our first year, we found that certain basic things were not happening," she said. "There were actions we took to ensure we were maximizing our potential to be successful."

The biggest gains were in the elementary grades, where almost half of those tested were deemed proficient: 48.6 percent in math (up from 40.5 percent in 2008) and 49.4 percent in reading (up from 45.6 percent in 2008). In 2007, fewer than a third of elementary students were considered proficient in either subject. At the middle and high school levels, reading proficiency grew from 39 percent to 41 percent; math, from 36 percent to 40 percent.

Some teachers and parents wonder whether the effort and attention devoted to lifting scores helped the children who need the most attention: those years behind grade level in reading and math skills.

One of Rhee's most widely discussed initiatives was "Saturday Scholars," a 13-week program for about 5,000 invited students whose academic records suggested that they were close to scoring at proficiency levels.

Critics call Saturday Scholars and programs like it "educational triage" that focuses disproportionate attention on students who require the least help.

Kerry Sylvia, a social studies teacher at Cardozo High School, said Saturday Scholars was less about serving children and more about making the adults who run the school system look good.

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