A grim picture of academic performance was emerging at Carlin Springs Elementary. Fewer than half of the school’s third-graders had passed the reading and math portions of the Virginia Standards of Learning exam, and numbers for history and science weren’t much better.

Teachers pored over the data, dumbfounded.

“To get information like that back can be like a shock to your system,” said Mary Clare Moller, a literacy teacher at the Arlington, Va., school, reflecting on test results that came in after the 2012-2013 school year. “You’re just thinking, like, ‘But I taught this information. I don’t understand why the kids didn’t get it.’ ”

Moller and other third-grade teachers devised a strategy for the following fall: They led six weeks of daily test preparation lessons, tracked students’ progress with a new computer program and provided extra tutoring for students who seemed at risk of missing the mark.

Teaching to the test had remarkable results: While the rest of the school continued to flounder under Virginia’s tougher testing standards, Carlin Springs’ third-graders saw double-digit gains across the board, with passage rates between 70 percent and 79 percent in every subject.

How did third graders at an underperforming school defy expectations?
Carlin Springs Elementary School in Arlington, Va., has typically hovered below the state average for the number of students who pass the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. Last year’s third-grade class, however, saw double-digit gains in all subjects.

(Virginia Department of Education)

As the teachers celebrated the gains, some soul searching began: They felt uncertain about the accomplishment and its educational value.

“I just knew it’s a part of the game,” said Carissa Krane, who taught third grade during the two years the test scores plummeted and then soared at Carlin Springs; she has since moved to California. “There has to be a way to be accountable, and this is the way that our country’s decided we’re going to hold kids accountable and the teachers accountable.”

Even the Carlin Springs principal expressed angst, saying she was dubious about what the numbers actually say. “I don’t think it tells the whole story, and I don’t think it shows you what kids know or do not know,” Principal Corina Coronel said.

Carlin Springs, like many schools across the country, struggles with what role standardized testing should play in the classroom. Critics believe the obsessive focus on data is misguided and is forcing educators to use valuable class time to prepare children for tests. Supporters say the tests hold teachers and schools accountable and are a good way to judge whether students are reaching benchmarks that will lead to academic success.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) made reforming the state’s standardized tests a central piece of his education platform, and lawmakers in Virginia already have moved to reduce the number of tests for students, meaning this year’s third-graders will take half as many tests as their predecessors.

Arlington Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy said that Carlin Springs’ gains showed that educators were able to tailor their instruction to fix a problem, acknowledging that part of their strategy involved intensive test preparation, a practice he said is common in schools everywhere. He said he thinks SOLs are not a comprehensive measure of a student’s knowledge and that teachers sometimes put too much emphasis on the results.

“We fall into the trap of wanting to be able to quantify things with a single number because it makes us feel good,” Murphy said.

Carlin Springs Elementary School principal Corina Coronel watches over recess in Arlington. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

For educators at Carlin Springs, the tests became a frustrating reality of modern teaching. They know that year-long classroom efforts will be reduced to scores and pass rates.

“It’s just really hard to look at just the numbers, and that’s what we’re judged by,” Moller said. “We have to try to do what we can to get the kids to pass.”

The testing question

The poor results in the 2012-2013 school year indicated to Carlin Springs teachers that part of the problem involved tougher tests. That year, the state raised the number of questions that students had to answer correctly in order to be considered proficient.

Veteran third-grade teacher Kathryn Frazier, who has since moved to nearby Abingdon Elementary, said she was stunned by the results. All of the teachers — despite their varying level of experience and approaches — had classes that posted poor results.

“That’s when we realized that we were dealing with something that wasn’t necessarily a valid measure of what we were doing in the classroom and what the kids were learning,” she said. “The SOL measures a kid’s ability to take a test. I don’t believe it’s an accurate measure of reading or math ability.”

Frazier theorized that the tests required “an entirely different skill set that they didn’t have in place.”

So she and Moller designed a test preparation curriculum that explained, for example, how to read test passages with an eye for answers and how to navigate a computer-based exam.

And they targeted students who they suspected had struggled on the tests, including Jayden Vargas, 9, whose mother said he has been on the honor roll nearly every school term since he started at Carlin Springs in kindergarten. But Jayden was falling short on the reading portion of practice exams, scoring a 65 percent.

Before the end of the year, teachers singled out Jayden and Kaitlyn Claros, 9, whose immigrant parents speak little English, for an after-school tutoring program that drilled students in test-taking strategies for the reading portion of the SOL. Moller thought students needed to be taught to read and comprehend passages on standardized tests differently than for class, just as they’re taught to distinguish between non-fiction and poetry.

“I want to make everyone, like, proud of me,” Jayden said in a recent interview in the Arlington apartment he shares with his little sister and parents.

The same was true for Kaitlyn, who was reading slightly above grade level. In her last practice test, she got a 57.5 percent on the reading portion. “I had been praying for it about a year,” she said, noting her angst about the SOLs.

After the training, both students passed the reading portion and all other portions of the SOLs at least at the “proficient” level, scoring above 400 out of a possible 600 points. They passed all other subjects, too. Jayden got a perfect score in math and came within 18 points of getting an “advanced” score in reading.

‘We defied some odds’

Such gains would have been noteworthy in any school. But Carlin Springs, which serves a largely poor and Hispanic population, has consistently lagged other Arlington schools on test scores, sometimes by just a few points and sometimes by dozens. But in recent years, passage rates for Carlin Springs have inched closer to districtwide rates, even surpassing them slightly in some subjects.

Located south of Route 50 in Arlington’s most diverse nook, Carlin Springs also is a landing pad for young immigrants who speak little or no English.

“We defied some odds,” Moller said.

While many at the school were ambivalent, others defend annual testing as an accountability tool and a way to ensure civil rights through transparency of test results.

Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, an advocacy group dedicated to improving schooling for low-income and minority students, said that standardized tests are valuable for parents and teachers alike.

“From the standpoint of empowering parents to make choices of what schools their kids should go to, tests don’t tell you everything, but they certainly give you the best objective measure of how much kids are learning,” Haycock said.

Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, countered the criticism that the test does not accurately assess students’ knowledge, and he said test preparation can only really help “on the margins.”

“We want the kids to be comfortable with the test, but we don’t want instruction to be test prep,” he said. “If students are taught to read and the kids are reading at grade level . . . then the students are going to do well on the test.”

Chris Guyton, a third-grade teacher at Carlin Springs, said test prep is vital because he thinks the SOLs are designed in a way that can appear deceptive to students, especially non-native speakers. Many of his students are the children of immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Bolivia and Costa Rica.

“For some kids, I’m the only native English speaker they’ll hear all day,” said Guyton, who speaks fluent Spanish and is married to a Hispanic woman. He’ll intersperse his instruction with Spanish to make sure the students understand instructions for complex lessons.

For these students, Guyton said, success on the SOLs is a dual victory in academic performance and English literacy.

Guyton sprinkles mini-lessons on test taking into his daily instruction. He and the students examine old versions of the SOLs and compare the multiple choice answers, looking for the obvious wrong ones first.

“Don’t let them trick you,” Guyton said to his class recently. He said that solving the SOLs is as much a puzzle as a test of academic achievement.

And for that reason, success on the SOLs can elicit conflicting emotions.

Doubt about what works

Frazier said she’s surrendered to the power of the numbers, even though it’s a measure she deeply disagrees with.

“You miss out on some of the deeper teaching when you’re doing test prep,” she said, adding that she feels “kind of disgusted that it takes a standardized test to make the state think that we’re doing our job.”

Even Tanya Moon, a University of Virginia professor of education who specializes in assessment, thinks the testing movement has gone too far, pushing educators to be constantly cognizant of preparing their students for tests.

“I believe that everybody should be held accountable for their jobs, but there are lots of things that kids bring into schools that schools can’t do anything about and yet the schools are held accountable,” she said.

And Coronel, the principal, said she’s not entirely certain what made the difference for the students at Carlin Springs. Maybe it was the ramped-up test prep, but it could have been other things, such as a more talented crop of 8-year-olds or a meeting with parents and caretakers to tell them to ensure children got a healthy breakfast and a good night’s rest before the exams.

“Anything can impact the performance for that specific day,” Coronel said. “If your goldfish dies, you’re not going to do well that day even if a teacher worked really hard all year to help you.”

Every year, Coronel and her staff examine the test data and change the way they teach. Some changes are mere tweaks, and some involve major revamping. It’s hard to know what’s working and what’s not, she said, especially since the school has a high level of transience.

“Sometimes we try things that don’t work,” Coronel said. “Sometimes I feel like we’re always trying to figure it out and we never quite get there.”