Let's be open: There's no logic in 'test security'

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 12:33 AM

I think Arlington County, if you allow for its relatively small size, is pound for pound the best school district in the nation. I am biased because it was my first beat when I was a young reporter in the 1970s. When I returned to cover it again in the late 1990s, I found a level of leadership, instruction and commitment to improvement still far beyond what parents and students usually encounter.

But even a district as splendid as Arlington can fall into the bad habit of letting obsession with test security and high-tech classroom assessment get in the way of a parent's desire to help her child learn. Late last year, I wrote about schools that keep graded tests hidden from students and parents for reasons that don't make much sense. Here we go again.

Arlington parent Sarah Goodell has a daughter in third grade. She knew the child was being given a county-designed standardized test every quarter to monitor student progress. She thought that was a good idea.

Citing information from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Mark Johnston, county schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos said the assessment "is used to inform teachers about areas of content in which a student may need additional support or assistance. It also tells teachers where students are performing well, thereby allowing the teacher to move on to other areas of instruction. It is not used in determining a student's grade."

Goodell didn't care about the grade. She just wanted to see how her kid was doing so she could be as helpful as possible at home. Yet, she said, "I was told by my child's teacher and principal that I could not have a copy of her quarterly math assessment per Arlington County rules. . . . The teacher and principal were sympathetic to this point but said their hands were tied."

Parents all over the country have been telling me about similar refusals by their school districts. What did Arlington, usually so well-organized and responsive to families, say for itself?

"At this time," Erdos said, "there is only one version of the assessment, and unfortunately, we don't have the resources to develop multiple versions of the test. For that reason, staff does not want to compromise its reliability to provide us with information that is needed to inform instructional decisions that ensure that students get the instructional support they need."

Hmm. I still don't get it, and neither does Goodell. I can see why the county might be concerned about preserving the test's reliability if it were the SAT or the state Standards of Learning test, where bad scores could have serious consequences for students. Goodell was asking to see a test with no consequences for students, particularly third-graders such as her daughter. Few parents are ever going to try to see the test result. Goodell is not planning to post it on the Internet. She just wants to see the questions being used to determine how her daughter will be taught.

Johnston said that if a parent asks, she is welcome to come to the school to look at the questions her child missed and get a clear idea of why the answers were wrong. "What we don't do is release the test or copy it for the parent to take home," he said.

It appears Johnston has not made this policy clear to his schools, and it still doesn't make sense. If showing the questions to a parent at school does not threaten test reliability, why is sending the parent a copy a problem?

This reluctance to let parents or students take graded tests home is spreading. "It limits the parents' ability to help children learn from their mistakes," Goodell said.

Educators regularly express concern about the lack of parental involvement in students' education, yet here they stymie a mother who wants to help the school district do its job.

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