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Class Notes
Standardized tests can be good
(Published March 20, 2006)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

Standardized testing is a good thing for the kids of D.C. Public Schools. T.S. Eliot once said that "April is the cruelest month." Perhaps it's not by chance that April also happens to be when standardized testing happens for DCPS. Still, I'm convinced that standardized testing is helping our kids.

At my school, and presumably all across DCPS, teachers and students are frantically preparing for the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DCCAS), coming up the week of April 24. The DCCAS is our "No Child Left Behind" test; passing the test helps prove that we are properly preparing our kids to be competitive nationally and globally. Failure to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) will cause our school and many others in DCPS to face administrative sanctions and possible restructuring. I'm terrified the future of our high school is in the hands of our 10th grade students, as the 10th grade is the only grade in high school to take the test. Yet, I'm also satisfied that that is how it should be.

How else should our future be determined if not through the success or failure of our kids? You can't evaluate schools on their report cards if you did, teachers would just give kids more A's when the superintendent says "Improve!" Traditionally, teachers gripe that tests like the DCCAS don't give a full picture of our students as learners. That's true. Standardized tests are not perfect. In fact, I don't even feel like I have a clear view of what specifically will be on the test. But standardized tests are the only reasonable basis we have for comparing my kids with kids across the city, across the country and around the world. Tests like the DCCAS will determine, in part, whether my students get into a particular college. And DCCAS gives us useful information about what kids know and are able to do -- and by "us" I mean teachers, students and, most importantly, parents.

I disagree with many aspects of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, most notably the lack of federal funding to support it, but NCLB works in demanding achievement from neglected groups; if your special education population isn't improving, you don't make AYP. If your racial minorities aren't improving, you don't make AYP. This forces educators to treat all kids as equally important, and brings pockets of neglected children back into the light of day. I know my job is on the line when it comes to helping these kids. My school is on the list of schools that "need improvement." And I'm glad of it, because my kids need to be better prepared for college, and I'm glad that across the city, my colleagues are busting their humps to teach our kids well.

Last year, DCPS developed new standards for learning. These standards articulated a new set of goals for what kids should be learning and what teachers should be teaching. One of the reasons why the standards were developed is that it wasn't clear that we were demanding enough from our kids (and also our teachers). Across DCPS, kids were taking courses with names like "Business Math," and Algebra I varied widely from school to school and even classroom to classroom -- in quality, content and rigor. I say that I don't know exactly what will be on the test; with the new standards, I do know exactly what the test will be assessing, what I should be teaching and what content is considered essential for my kids to learn.

The data produced by the test will give us valuable feedback on what we taught well, and what we need to teach. Taken as a whole, it will help teachers make decisions about instruction and content using a standardized yardstick. Taken individually, it shows us what particular kids are good at and what they need to learn. Yes, it's a blunt instrument, but it does communicate to me and to my kids the high expectations embodied in our standards.

I do wish that I knew more about the DCCAS. Last year's test, the Stanford 9, was a known quantity at Bell; we'd researched it, delved into it, torn it apart and practiced it until our math teachers could predict with astonishing accuracy what questions would come up on the test. This is the first year we are taking the DCCAS. Studies show that when you introduce a new test, typically scores dip for a year or two as teachers figure out what the new test thinks is important. I don't really know how my kids will do. I'm also testing a different group than last year (as last year's 9th graders became our test takers and our old 10th graders moved on). But I'd rather deal with uncertainty about the test than the uncertainty that comes from having no data about my kids, from hoping that I and my colleagues are doing a good job teaching, never really knowing if our kids are learning.

As the Math Department chairman at Bell Multicultural, I've looked at lots of standardized tests this year: four different versions of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) on which the DCCAS is based; copies of the TerraNova, an assessment produced by the same publisher as the DCCAS; the Stanford 9 test used in DCPS for the last several years and several others. I've tried to develop review material that will help our kids, knowing also that research shows the best way to prepare is to teach a full and challenging curriculum. The conclusion I've drawn from looking at these different tests is that the majority of the DCCAS will measure what I personally consider 7th grade math, with some questions that range through Geometry up to Algebra II, our 10th grade math class.

I think it will be a fair test for what we should expect from our kids. And that is a fair test of what we should expect from our schools.

***

Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator