Alternate exams questioned as test scores rise in Virginia

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009; B01

Lynbrook Elementary School, which serves one of the poorest communities in Fairfax County, seems to be a model for reform. Three years ago, the Springfield school failed to meet state testing goals in English. Since then, it has charted double-digit gains in passing rates for every one of its closely monitored racial and ethnic groups of students.

But the success at Lynbrook and other schools throughout the state is not only due to better teaching. More and more, students who have struggled to pass Virginia's Standards of Learning exams are taking different tests.

The trend dates to 2007, when federal officials approved an alternative assessment after the Fairfax School Board threatened to defy a mandate to give multiple-choice reading tests to students who were destined to fail -- students who, like many at Lynbrook, were just beginning to learn English.

The Virginia Grade Level Alternative, like the multiple-choice test, assesses students' understanding of the state academic standards. Teachers document learning throughout the year in a binder of class work, including worksheets, quizzes and writing samples. Some special education students and non-native speakers in early stages of learning English are eligible for the portfolio, but final decisions are made by committees of educators and often parents.

Educators say the "portfolio" tests are valuable teaching tools and fairer and more meaningful than multiple-choice tests. With more time and flexibility, students have seen their passing rates soar.

Since 2007, Lynbrook's reading passing rate for students learning English shot from 52 to 94 percent. Among special education students, the rate went from 34 to 100 percent. At the same time, the number of portfolios increased from a handful to more than 100, including nearly half of the English learners and 78 percent of students with disabilities. All passed. The school had more than 460 students last year.

With more students taking the new test, many schools are showing sudden surges in performance. And some parents are concerned the portfolios are muddling scores the public relies on to see how racial and ethnic groups of students are performing and how they compare.

"How do you know we are closing the achievement gap, because thousands of our kids are not being tested the same way?" said Maria Allen, a Fairfax parent and longtime advocate for minority students.

Success at a cost

The remarkable gains at Lynbrook fit into a picture of ever-greater success in the region's largest school system. Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale announced record highs in test scores and impressive progress in narrowing achievement gaps this fall. He attributed the progress to "a powerful shift" toward more personalized instruction systemwide.

Dale, who helped lead the fight to provide an alternative test for those beginning to learn English, said portfolios produce more accurate results that are consistent with how non-native speakers perform on multiple-choice tests once they master English. "We are seeing the same great improvement in our kids and our teachers no matter what instrument you look at," Dale said.

In an era of high-stakes testing, school leaders walk a tightrope. They must balance a lofty mandate to measure all students according to the same high expectations with a reality of classrooms filled with children who have trouble processing basic information or who recently arrived from another country. Every state makes some allowances for students who cannot meet testing requirements.

Maryland officials permit students who fail an exit exam required for graduation to do a project instead. District schools offer a "read aloud" accommodation for students with disabilities during reading tests, but began to dial back the program this spring after education officials found it was being overused. Most states offer alternative tests for students with serious cognitive disabilities.

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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