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Class Notes
D.C. kids are fighting to succeed
(Published May 1, 2006)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

Recently I got into a passionate conversation with a colleague of mine about the case in the news of the 12-year-old boy charged with the murder of his mother and sister. My colleague argued that "this is what we have to deal with as teachers," whereas I said that this kid was not representative of our students.

So I took a poll of my students, asking them what they thought about their fellow classmates. They said that maybe 50 percent of kids at school are easy to deal with, and the rest are "crazy." Then I went to the teachers with the same poll. The teachers’ answer? Eighty to 90 percent of the kids are really pleasant and hard-working, with only the rare few you really have to toil on to get results.

Last week, I had a chance to find out which group, students or teachers, was right. From April 24 through April 28, D.C. Public Schools conducted standardized testing. The stakes were high – several schools have "failed" for three years in a row, according to requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law; if they don’t pass this year, they face the possibility of restructuring or closure.

My school, Bell Multicultural, is one of the high schools that need to pass this year or face sanctions. In senior high, only 10th grade students take the NCLB test. As a 10th grade teacher and test proctor, I got to see the 10th grade in action all week. Not only that, I also got to spend the two weeks prior to the test doing intensive standardized test prep in every math class. In fact, from the beginning of the year, 10th grade students have been reviewing and taking tests similar to the NCLB test about once every two weeks.

Test prep is not exactly the most interesting thing to do. Plus, my students know that failing or passing the test won’t affect their grade in class. Many of them have been serially unsuccessful at tests. On the pre-tests we gave to the students before the real test, several of them scored six out of 28 or lower. And yet throughout the test prep and on testing day, they worked their guts out.

In all the classes, the kids took practice tests without complaint, worked hard on them, took work home over spring break, practiced independently and bugged teachers for explanations of the different questions. We had three optional "quiz bowls" on Saturdays and more than 30 kids came in voluntarily on a Saturday morning to work some more.

Throughout testing week, the 10th graders -- 15- and 16-year-old kids -- were incredibly patient and tenacious. Attendance was excellent. The test wasn’t timed; many students used the whole morning, re-reading the questions and making sure their answers were right. Those who finished early waited courteously, silently. Before the test, instead of asking questions like "Do we have to take this test?" students asked me (as the test proctor) "Can I keep writing my essay even though I’ve already filled up all the lines?" They really want to do well on these tests.

Scores won’t be published until late June or July, but I know already that their effort paid off, and, for better or for worse, test prep works. At the beginning of the year, we gave new 10th graders an all multiple choice pre-test. On the A,B,C or D test, our kids averaged 25 percent, which is the same as random guessing. Again in March, we gave another pre-test. They averaged about 30 percent -- better, but not by much, since most of the things that we teach as being important for 10th grade math weren’t on the test, like factoring polynomials, graphing linear systems, finding the vertex of a quadratic. The NCLB high school test focuses on super-advanced math ideas like multiplying fractions, calculating percents and reading charts, things our kids are expected to have learned in elementary and middle school. Clearly they needed some review. So we reviewed.

In the last two weeks, our kids have improved the average to about 40 percent. To pass the test, we’re guessing that they need to get about 50 percent correct. Are we going to bomb the test? I don’t think so. After looking over the test this past week, the pre-tests that we used were tougher than the real test. Also, averages by their nature hide the fact there are a lot of kids who did significantly better than 40 percent, along with several who did much worse; in the game of NCLB, it doesn’t matter if one kid misses by a mile as long as enough kids pass.

So what does NCLB do to instruction? For 10th graders, NCLB means four weeks of class spent on test practice. Out of the 40-week academic year, that’s 10 percent.

It’s a hard act, balancing the need to teach grade-appropriate material with the fact that many of my students have big holes on basic concepts like fractions. If we were to spend two months reviewing material they’ve seen over and over and never mastered, kids would switch off and never get to some of the other concepts they’re going to be expected to know in college. Do I teach that half of one-eighth is one-sixteenth, or hand them a calculator? Ultimately, we decided to fit in the test prep where we could and hope that the kids would pick up the basics as they learned new ideas.

Having seen how the students have worked on the test, I know that they’re going to be fine regardless of what the final scores are. They’re determined to do well. They know that they need practice on some things that kids in other schools take for granted, but they’re fighting.

Before this week, I thought that maybe 90 percent of my kids were keen and hard working. Looks like I aimed too low, and if I’m to be judged as a teacher by the success of any group of kids, I’m glad it’s this one.

***

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