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Alternate exams questioned as test scores rise in Virginia

Fourth-grade teacher Candy Kwiecinski leads a dictionary lesson with Jemela Kanu and Jason Ha at Weyanoke Elementary. Some students are tested immediately; others wait till regular tests in the spring.
Fourth-grade teacher Candy Kwiecinski leads a dictionary lesson with Jemela Kanu and Jason Ha at Weyanoke Elementary. Some students are tested immediately; others wait till regular tests in the spring. (Michael Alison Chandler/the Washington Post)
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Virginia's move to expand its use of portfolios to include students who are learning grade-level skills is unusual. It's costly. Fairfax spent more than $500,000 to train teachers and score portfolios last year, not to mention thousands of hours of teacher time compiling them. It's also risky. Experts say blending the results of different tests is very difficult. Closely watched trend lines and the accountability system's credibility are at stake.

"Schools or districts that are administering more of these alternative assessments may look better than those who are using fewer, and it may not have anything to do with the quality of the program," said Joan Herman, director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA.

Virginia education officials say they have worked hard to make the tests comparable in rigor and scoring. A Virginia Commonwealth University study found that both tests are "well aligned" to the same academic standards, and the federal government has scrutinized and approved the alternative test.

But rollout has been uneven as the number of portfolios in Virginia has more than doubled to 47,000 in the past three years. Richmond, a district with about 23,000 students, administered nearly 3,800 portfolios last year; Loudoun, a district of 57,000, collected fewer than 1,000.

Fairfax, with 169,000 students last year, compiled 9,440 portfolios, up from 700 three years ago. The number represents about 2 percent of the total assessments given in Fairfax last year and about 6 percent of reading and math tests given in elementary and middle school. High school students are not eligible for the portfolio.

Students excel

Last year, students tested with portfolios outperformed classmates who took multiple-choice tests in Fairfax. Students with disabilities surpassed schoolwide pass rates in reading or math tests in more than a dozen schools. Students learning English were far more likely to score in the highest performance tier on the reading test, which measures knowledge of language arts concepts such as metaphor and plot, than their native-speaking peers. Overall, English-learners and students with disabilities charted 20- and 18-point gains respectively in reading pass rates, compared to a six-point gain for the division.

At Weyanoke Elementary School near Annandale, a third of students were tested with reading portfolios last year, up from none three years ago. Passing rates jumped from 41 to 100 percent for students with disabilities, from 69 to 97 percent for English learners, and from 66 to 91 percent for black students (more than a quarter of whom were tested with portfolios).

Principals at Weyanoke and Lynbrook say that the boost in scores has gone hand in hand with improvements in instruction and that portfolios help teachers focus on students' unique learning styles.

Weyanoke teacher Candy Kwiecinski is assembling about 10 portfolios for students in her fourth-grade class this year. One October afternoon, she taught a lesson on dictionary skills and how to use guide words at the top of the page. Some students might see a question on guide words next spring on a multiple-choice test. Others were tested that day.

A work sheet asking for examples of guide words could go in the portfolio. Or if it that proves too challenging, Kwiecinski can ask a student to explain what they are or whether they can select examples of guide words from an assortment of flashcards. Her job is to find the right way to teach and to test each student.

Last year, 100 percent of the portfolios at Weyanoke received passing scores. That does not mean the students who took them are the school's top performers, Kwiecinski said; it means they all learned the curriculum.

The portfolios show that her students "are learning the exact same things in different ways," she said.

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