D.C. schools chancellor plans to expand use of standardized tests

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee plans to significantly expand the use of standardized tests so that, eventually, every D.C. student from kindergarten through high school is regularly assessed to measure academic progress and the effectiveness of teachers.

The plan, to be phased in beginning in the spring, is certain to reignite debate about what some D.C. parents and teachers already regard as a test-happy culture.

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires that all public school students in grades three through eight be tested annually for reading and math proficiency; high school students are required to be tested once. Every April, the District administers the DC Comprehensive Assessment System (DC CAS). Students in grades five and eight and in high school also get DC CAS science or biology tests. Four times a year, students in grades three through 10 take the DC Benchmark Assessment System (DC BAS) to track progress. Children in kindergarten through third grade receive DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy). And, every two years, fourth- and eighth-graders take the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) in math and reading.

Some experts say the District's testing calendar is relatively light compared with those of other states, including Maryland and Virginia. "What D.C. has in place right now is the minimum testing required by the feds," said Christopher Swanson, director of the publication Education Week's research center.

The additional tests would cover English language arts and math in kindergarten through second grade, math "pretesting" in third grade before the DC CAS, social studies and science in grades six through eight and core subjects in high school. Officials said none of the high school exams would be high-stakes tests for students, in the manner of the Maryland High School Assessments, a set of exams in English, algebra, biology and government that seniors must pass to graduate.

Tests would be given about every six to eight weeks and at the end of the year, allowing teachers to identify student weaknesses and adjust classroom strategies. Administrators would also be better able to spot shortcomings in teaching, officials said.

"It's been a priority for a long time," said Rhee, who is preparing to ask outside firms to submit proposals for developing the tests. "We want to have a much more robust set of assessments, not just in math and reading, but different subjects. As a parent, I want to know on a regular basis how my kids are progressing or not, and have my teachers take a pulse not once a year or four times a year."

School officials declined to discuss the potential cost of the expanded testing before negotiating with vendors.

Rhee, who frequently talks up the virtues of "data-driven" decisions, also wants more testing data to expand the reach of the school system's IMPACT teacher evaluation system. As it stands, only reading and math teachers in grades four through eight -- fewer than 20 percent of the District's 3,800 classroom instructors -- can be assessed on the basis of growth in test scores. Student "value-added" will account for half of their annual evaluation. Educators with low IMPACT scores -- the rest of the appraisal is based on a series of five classroom observations and other criteria -- can face dismissal.

The new performance pay system included in the recently ratified teachers' contract begins in the fall and also relies in part on test scores, with the biggest bonuses available to teachers who can show growth in student achievement.

Some parents and teachers say that the fixation on tests is sucking the oxygen from basic classroom instruction and other activities that enrich school life, such as field trips.

"They're not learning when they're taking a test," said Mary Melchior, a parent leader at Langdon Education Campus in Northeast, who added that test preparation and testing periods should not count against the 180 legally required days of school. "You're effectively reducing the number of days that kids have in the classroom."

Crystal Sylvia, a social worker at Bruce Monroe Elementary, called her school a "test factory" in a recent essay. During DC CAS and DC BAS periods, an "all-hands-on-deck approach paralyzes the school so that no other important issues or responsibilities can be appropriately addressed," she said.

Erin McGoldrick, Rhee's chief of data and accountability, rejects the testing-vs.-instruction argument as false. She said assessments, when used properly, can only improve teaching.

"I see assessment as not different from instruction," she said. "I see it as core to good instruction. Assessment gives you information to use in instruction."

Rhee said: "I think testing gets a bad rap sometimes. Consistently assessing our kids is going to lead to more information about what they are learning and mastering and what they are not."

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