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The nuances of testing in low-performing schools

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By Josie Malone and Wagma Mommandi

It is testing season; conversations on the merits and follies of high-stakes testing are unfolding in districts across the country as students are busy filling in bubbles, erasing stray marks, and writing with contextual evidence. As a fifth-year high school science teacher and a sixth-year high school English Language Arts teacher in DC Public Schools, we wonder who generates the popular rhetoric that teachers are anti-testing. In fact, we regularly incorporate data from assessments to guide our instruction and we are certainly not unique in using test data as a measure of our effectiveness as teachers.

The issue at hand is not the existence of tests or the amount of time our students spend taking them. Rather, the issue is the amount of time teachers are forced to spend on test preparation in low-performing schools which ultimately leads to over emphasis on basic skills, and under emphasis on problem solving and complex thinking.

There are three reasons we believe high-stakes testing in the District of Columbia is especially burdensome to low-performing schools. First, the DC CAS (Comprehensive Assessment System) does not show student growth, a measure needed for all schools to demonstrate the actual progress achieved by students. Despite managing to advance several grade levels during the year, students in a tenth grade English class who begin the year at a fourth grade reading level will still score Below Basic or Basic on the exam. Shawntay, a tenth grader, started the year in August reading at a level below what you would anticipate from a third grader. By November, she had demonstrated tremendous growth, reading works by Sherman Alexie, texts usually assigned to middle school students, during independent reading. While Shawntay has yet to reach grade level standards, she should be recognized for how far she has progressed towards that standard in such a short length of time. Of course, we should leave no stone unturned until she is reading at grade level.
Second, the DC CAS test is administered in early April, when there are still nine weeks of instruction left. This leaves two options: teachers must either inject so much content into a short period of time that both the subject and the students are shortchanged. Or, they must accept that the students will take a test that covers material they have not yet seen, jeopardizing their jobs and lowering the test-taking confidence of their students. The acceleration of material is especially difficult when there are large numbers of students achieving at low levels, large numbers of English Language Learners, and a large amount of turnover, all traditional characteristics of low performing schools in the District of Columbia. Blindly testing all students in a low-performing school at such an early point in the school year makes much of the data lose its integrity.

Third, many teachers and administrators in DC feel pressured to identify "bubble" students to focus on in the weeks immediately prior to the test. These students are within range of moving up a performance level and thus help the school's ultimate overall performance on the assessment. This absurd triage stems from the pressure on high priority schools to demonstrate colossal gains. Ignoring a student whose grade-level reading comprehension skills are unlikely to grow before the assessment does not indicate our concern for teaching ALL students to be readers, writers, and thinkers. Furthermore, high-achieving students can be ignored. Take the English student who is not invited to Saturday school because he or she is on track to score Proficient, or the Biology student who is not pulled in for a focus group because they are likely to perform at a Below Basic level. The neglect of students at both ends of the spectrum systematically ignores our mission as educators and hurts children.

The students and teachers in low-performing schools in high-test districts deserve to have a higher level of attention paid to the nuanced issues of testing, rather than a higher level of anxiety over the repercussions of scores. District officials must consider moving the test date to later in the school year, so that teachers and students are not shortchanged a chance to accurately show what they have taught and learned. Furthermore, district officials must seriously consider introducing growth measures. If the assessment is able to show growth over time, teachers and administrators in low performing schools will be less inclined to identify and track bubble students because all students can demonstrate growth.

As DCPS transitions into Common Core-aligned tests next year, teachers' input must be included in the decisions around timing, student preparation and the nuanced needs of low-performing schools. There is no better time than the present to make fundamental changes in testing policy and administration in DCPS.

Josie Malone is a 10th and 11th grade English teacher. Wagma Mommandi is a 9th, 10th and 11th grade Biology and Environmental Science teacher. Josie is in her 6th year and Wagma is in her 5th year of teaching in DC Public Schools. Both teachers are Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows.

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