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Tests scores show little progress

Chavous, Kinlow say school officials need to take closer look at data

(Published October 18, 1999)


Staff Writer

Students enrolled in D.C. public schools appear to have shown little consistent progress in reading and mathematics proficiency during the past three years of standardized testing, despite the claims of improvement being made by school officials.

An analysis of the school system’s data compiled by The Common Denominator – tracking test scores by students’ high school graduation year – finds marked increases in the percentages of students who are falling further behind in math and reading skills for several classes while showing only three classes making steady, three-year progress in reading skills.

Only the Class of 2006, this year’s 6th graders, has shown any consistency in math performance – a three-year decline in their ability to keep up with grade-level skills. In reading performance, the Class of 2001 – this year’s 11th graders – has shown the greatest decline in grade-level skills, going from 30 percent testing "below basic" in 1997 to 38 percent in 1998 to 51 percent not able to keep up in this year’s spring testing.

Most of the data show no consistent pattern of performance. For example, math test scores for the Class of 2003 – this year’s 9th graders – fluctuated from 52 percent with "below basic" skills in 1997 to 64 percent in 1998 to 58 percent in 1999. Reading scores for the Class of 2004 -- this year’s 8th graders – showed 32 percent testing "below basic" in 1997, 16 percent in 1998, but a rise to 27 percent below basic skills level in last spring’s testing.

"Below basic" is the least satisfactory among four performance levels of scoring on the school system’s standardized tests. The "basic" level, according to the testing company, means a student has achieved only "partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for satisfactory work." A student scoring at the "proficient" level is considered to be showing "solid academic performance," while the advanced level shows "superior performance."

Part of the problem in comparing percentage scores may lie in the often dramatic changes from year-to-year in the total number of students in a given grade who took the Stanford Achievement Test 9, commonly called the "Stanford 9."

D.C. Public Schools officials say, with few exceptions, all enrolled students should be taking the test. But officials at a recent media briefing about the test scores were unable to account for why approximately 20,000 students did not get tested last spring.

The largest decline in children being tested shows up in the Class of 2006, which "lost" about 1,300 test-takers between 1997 and 1999. "We don’t know where we lost them to," said Pat Anderson of the DCPS Office of Education Accountability, when asked if the school system is attempting to track the losses.

DCPS officials recently released detailed three-year tracking of test data by individual schools, and according to race and gender of the test-taker. Officials also reported grade-by-grade performance data that compared the performance of three separate classes of students who took the test in a given grade during the past three years.

"We are presenting the data in a way that best serves the schools in what we are attempting to do," said Deputy Superintendent Elois Brooks. "Almost any way you look at test data can help you with something."

Brooks said the school system has not compiled data that tracks student performance according to graduation class, and she said there are no current plans to do so.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

"I have long believed we have to track kids and be able to identify where the problems lie and then (identify) a cohesive approach to addressing those problems," said Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, chairman of the council’s education committee. "If we don’t recognize the problem, we’re doomed to having the same problems repeat themselves."

Chavous called the current "over-emphasis" on standardized testing in the city’s schools a "misplaced priority" and said school officials "need to look really closely at what we’re doing to see if children are absorbing" the information being taught in the classroom.

"My sense is we have been so focused on test taking that we’re not making sure that kids gain the requisite knowledge to succeed in life," he said.

Tonya Kinlow, an at-large member of the D.C. Board of Education who sits on the board’s academic programs committee and the Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees, said she has raised questions repeatedly about the lack of test data that tracks student performance by graduation class.

"Part of the rationale for going to the Stanford 9 was that it gives you all of this real-time data on student strengths and weaknesses, so you can develop programs around that, but I don’t think we’ve actually used it that way," she said. "I’m not sure that we’re looking at the information close enough to make it filter down to the classroom."

Control board member Constance Newman, whose oversight area includes the public schools, could not be reached for comment but faxed a statement in which she noted her "understanding that the decline in test scores was brought to a halt in 1998-99 and for the first time in five years DCPS students improved their scores…in both reading and mathematics."

Improvement in standardized test scores was among the major reasons the control board cited recently for awarding a $25,000 bonus to Superintendent Ackerman, along with a $15,000 per year raise in her $150,000 a year salary – taking her to $165,000 per year.

"If we’re spending all this money in the name of reform, we have to make sure reform is taking place. Sometimes I’m just not sure," Chavous said. He noted his concern that Ackerman "hasn’t had the same level of oversight as other superintendents."

Chavous said he also has not been told how much money the school system is spending on its standardized testing program. "We need some light to shine on what’s happening in the schools," he said.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator