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District schools cram for DC CAS tests

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; B01

Stung by a decline in elementary school reading and math scores on 2010 standardized tests, D.C. officials are raising the intensity of preparations for this year's exams to unprecedented levels.

In systemwide training "webinars" and school meetings, teachers and administrators have been flooded with data about the prior performance of students on the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System, called DC CAS. Last month, schools received an annual "operational blueprint" listing of which of the District's academic standards - the specific areas of skill and knowledge students are expected to master - will be on next month's test.

The moves come as the system's interim chancellor, Kaya Henderson, is expected to be named to the position permanently by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), a source close to the situation said.

Some teachers and parents say the emphasis on improving test performance has narrowed the curriculum and flattened creativity and intellectual inquiry in the classroom. "A lot of my colleagues are uncomfortable with it," said Bill Rope, a teacher at Hearst Elementary in Northwest. "It seems to take teaching to the test to an even higher level. Teachers focus on things they know will be tested and neglect the rest."

D.C. officials said their sole interest is in conveying essential skills to students and that there's nothing improper about making sure that youngsters can analyze an author's argument or differentiate among mean, median and mode.

"It would be a mistake to think that once teachers understand what students need to know, or what standards they will be tested on, the system can be gamed," said Erin McGoldrick, D.C. schools chief of data and assessment. "Figuring out how to teach the standards in a way that students learn is the hard part. And doing that is not gaming the system. It is effective teaching."

But the granular detail available to teachers about exam performance - and pressure from school leaders to employ it as an instructional tool - reflects the steadily increasing stakes surrounding test scores. Like all school systems, D.C. must reach annual performance benchmarks to meet the federal definition of "adequate yearly progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind Law.

At Deal Middle School, Principal Melissa Kim and her sixth-grade math teachers know that just 45 percent of their students understood the mathematical concept of "a constant" and the formulas for finding the circumference and area of a circle. Seventh-grade English teachers know that 62 percent of students could recognize multiple themes in a text and supply evidence from the selection.

Reinforcing the focus on the tests is the city's prominent position in the national school reform debate, a legacy of the tenure of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who resigned in October. Rhee pressed to raise academic performance in part by turning over the teacher corps through layoffs, buyouts and dismissals. She also instituted a new evaluation system in which poor student test scores can contribute to low ratings for teachers and, in some cases, firings.

Henderson said in a recent e-mail that although she feels "a continued sense of urgency about demonstrating improvement across the board this year," the DC CAS is not the only indicator of academic growth. Officials point to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally administered tests that, between 2007 and 2009, showed solid gains in D.C. schools in fourth- and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading.

Schools staging their annual pre-test mobilization are paring back class time for "non-testing" subjects to allow for more test prep.

At Hart Middle School in Ward 8, where 22 percent of students read at proficiency level on the 2010 CAS, social studies and science classes are focusing on reading and math.

Pushing to improve the school's performance, Principal Billy Kearney recently sent an e-mail reminding teachers that each of them should be "strategically focusing on at least 10 students who are on the cusp (according to test data - within 7 points) of advancing one performance level." DC CAS scores are categorized as "below basic," "basic," "proficient" and "advanced."

"They have created a world where they've given themselves a single barometer," said Peter McPherson, a parent at Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill. "If scores go up, we succeed. If they go down, we fail."

This year's heavy test preparation coincides with a report the National Research Council released Friday saying that without sophisticated longitudinal analysis tracking individual students over time, test scores are of little value as evidence of academic growth.

The schools' push is to some extent a response to last year's test results at the elementary level, which dropped - precipitously in some cases - after two years of significant gains under Rhee.

Sixth-grade reading proficiency fell 17 percentage points, and the proportion of students reading at "below basic" levels more than doubled, from 9.1 to 19.1 percent. Third-grade reading declined by nearly eight points, with the "below basic" segment rising from 14.1 to 23.4 percent. Sixth-grade passing rates in math dipped almost 7 percent.

Public charter elementary schools lost comparable ground.

Scores at public and charter secondary schools rose.

An analysis of the test by publisher CTB/McGraw-Hill, requested by District officials, concluded that the 2010 test was comparable in difficulty to past versions. D.C. officials attribute the drop in scores to several factors, including a lack of alignment between material covered on the DC CAS and the DC BAS, a quarterly test designed to identify student weaknesses.

Some educators suspect other reasons for the decline. They say tightened test security has cut down on teachers improperly helping students or altering answer sheets to boost scores. Others say that D.C. kids are weary of the yearly barrage of tests that disrupt classroom routines and scuttle special events such as field trips.

"I absolutely believe it's test fatigue," said Angelo Parodi, a fifth-grade teacher at Eaton Elementary.

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