Illustration © by Darren Thompson
As long as there have been No. 2 pencils, there has been standardized testing in
Amid a heat wave in July, the state released results for the annual assessment, and the news was generally good.
Yet some people across
DOE says better test scores and stricter adherence to state standards are leading to better education. According to a pamphlet for the DSTP, the assessment is in place helping to “ensure students apply their academic skills to realistic, everyday problems.” More to the point, the test serves as a checkpoint for the state-approved Content Standards and an accountability system on par with the No Child Left Behind Act.
The standards were forged by a group of educators, business leaders and community folks to measure what every student should know and be able to do. “The intent is to be better prepared for the 21st century,”
The standards specify performance descriptions for each grade. By second grade, for example, a student should understand whole numbers up to 100 and be able to identify basic story concepts. By fifth grade, he should be able to measure angles and organize an essay. Tenth grade has students using the Pythagorean Theorem and doing basic trigonometry.
To better prepare students for testing, the state has created a sturdy circular pattern of alignment between the standards, the curriculum and the assessment. The standards dictate what the teachers teach, who in turn make it part of the curriculum and test the students in March or May of the designated years. If a student performs below the standard, it could mean summer school and detainment. The idea is that poor scores will lead to personalized tutoring determined by an Individual Improvement Plan—also indicated by the DSTP. On the flipside, marks of “distinguished” performance (level 5) could lead to scholarships.
Simple enough, but some feel miffed by the fact
“The reason our test scores are improving is because everyone is very focused on these tests,” says Johnson, a parent member of the
Johnson, a co-chair of the grassroots Delaware Advocates for Children’s Education, also says the test is being used for the wrong reasons.
“It’s used to do one thing and it’s used for 5 million other purposes,” she says. “The test is supposed to measure that a child is at grade level. That’s all it was really intended to do.”
Johnson says that, at
“To be in pre-algebra, you can’t just be a good test-taker. You have to be able to handle everything,” she says. “You’re setting the kid up to fail, which I find is very bad for their self-esteem.”
Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff maintains that students are better learning the content standards, which is reflected in better test scores.
“There is really no way a kid can be coached on the test, in my mind,” she says. “Certainly you can say, These are the kind of questions you will see, here’s how to approach them.”
The test, compiled by San Antonio-based Harcourt Assessment, features a mix of multiple choice, short-answer questions and what are called extended-response questions, which demand that students explain how they reached an answer. “So it’s not just the mechanics. It’s the thought process behind it,” Woodruff says.
“I recently found out that
With school curriculum and state assessment aligned to a fairly rigid set of standards, there also comes a possibility that a few things are being left out of lessons. According to Woodruff, there aren’t many topics explicitly erased from state-recommended curriculum, though there exists a nationwide problem with teaching in-depth mathematics.
“Mathematics in the
A new testing program could soon erase a lot of doubts. Several school districts, including Red Clay,
The hour-long test produces results immediately, says Nancy Doorey, a Brandywine Board of Education member who helped coordinated the pilot program statewide.
“The problem with the current state test is, if I’m a fifth-grade kid and I score really well, the teacher doesn’t know anything about what I know or don’t know,” Doorey says. “Just that I’m somewhere above grade level. Is it seventh, eighth, 10th grade level? They have no idea. And it’s really detrimental to kids who are below grade level.
“With this test, it allows us to measure growth from September to May and from year to year. It’s one scale that allows us to measure from second grade to graduation. So we can measure how much they grow, compare that to national averages, then get an idea if our kids are growing at the rate they should.”
At the moment, the formative test—made by Oregon-based North West Evaluation Association—is being used only to help guide kids toward the DSTP. When the current test system contract expires in 2008, a new system will be implemented.
Doorey, as well as many teachers and administrators, hopes the new test will share qualities with the North West Evaluation Association test, which has had resounding success in states such as
“It’s so motivating for the kids,” Doorey says. “Because suddenly they’re, like, ‘I only need two points higher!’ Right now, the DSTP is this big, black, scary box. They can take our test and know where they’re headed.”
A Higher Calling
When classes resumed at
This banner year is also a milestone in the history of the school. Wilmington Christian will celebrate its 60th anniversary with a grand gala at the
Looking back on the last 39 of those 60 years, alumna Carol Allston-Stiles says that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Even after significant enrollment growth and a series of moves before the elementary and secondary schools were finally united on one 15-acre campus in Hockessin, the school is fundamentally what it was when she entered as a first-grader in 1967.
It’s the same as when she was salutatorian of the first graduating class in 1979, when she enrolled her son in 2001, and when she became a member of the school board in 2004.
“What I’m most proud of,” says Allston-Stiles, “is that through all the changes, the original philosophy and standards of the school have not been compromised.”
The theme for this month’s gala—arms wrapped around the future and feet firmly planted in the past—supports that view.
“The new high school just blows me away,” Allston-Stiles says. “I remember the old school on
The addition to the existing facility, financed by a $9 million capital campaign, goes a long way toward putting Wilmington Christian’s plant on a par with that of more affluent private schools. Yet the expansion is not likely to come at the expense of the nurturing environment that has characterized the school from the beginning.
“I see this school as being what so many kids need, and of faculty and administration having an innate sense of knowing every individual,” says Allston-Stiles. “Students are not just faces in the hall here.”
The founders envisioned that and more in 1946. They pictured a school that would shape the lives and world views of its students. The mission statement commits Wilmington Christian to providing a Christ-centered, challenging academic program based on a biblical view of God and the world.
Reminders of that philosophy are everywhere in the form of Bible verses stenciled on classroom walls, along hallways, even in the restrooms. In David Bird’s honors English class, a reference to Christianity is made in the first five minutes. “Christianity was often in synch with Romanticism,” Bird tells his students during a discussion of English literature.
“We try to see how people have glorified God in their literature or whether they were off the mark,” Bird explains after class. “The founders of this school were from the Protestant Reform tradition, meaning they believed that you know yourself as you know God. The teachers here are committed to pointing out the fallacy of any other way of thinking.”
Bird, like his colleagues, is equally committed to the students. “One of the things that has kept me here all these years is the number of students who apply their faith to their daily lives,” he says. “I’m astounded by how many apologize to me when they’re reprimanded. It’s made it all worthwhile to teach here.”
Though this school may have much in common with other schools that follow a Christian-based curriculum, it is the only local Christian school in the Delaware Association of Independent Schools, which puts it among the academically elite.
Academic statistics for Wilmington Christian seniors indicate the school does an exceptional job of preparing students for college. Almost half the class of 2005 scored 1200 or better on the SAT, with the top 25 percent averaging 1400. Close to 60 percent graduated with honors.
The school has also produced sports teams that have consistently earned berths in state championship tournaments. The boys soccer team has returned 13 times; the girls soccer team reached the semi-finals in ’97 and 2000. The field hockey team played in the tournament for 18 straight years, were semifinalists in 1998 and champions in 1999. The softball team returned seven times before winning the championship in 1992. The volleyball and basketball teams have seen their share of tournaments, too.
The school’s steady growth is a testament to the strength of its philosophy and the commitment of administrators, faculty and parents. In 1946 there were 32 students in grades one through three; today there are 540 students in grades K through 12. The faculty, once the sole domain of one Mildred Pusey, now numbers 52.
According to Bird, “Declining academics and the social problems that plagued public schools during the age of integration led to the growth of Wilmington Christian.” Though the advent of charter schools may be responsible for a recent drop in enrollment, the higher-than-average number of churches in the area continues to account for a steady stream of Christian parents who share the school’s philosophy, Bird claims.
“Many parents have lost faith in the public school’s ability to teach values and control student behavior,” he says. “And although we do have occasional discipline problems here, I could leave my wallet on the desk and two hours later it would still be there. There’s a basic honesty here.”
The Bible may guide the curriculum, but the teaching policy is far from isolationist. “We’re not afraid to expose kids to ideas,” says Bird. “There is a side of Christendom that believes in fleeing the world, building a wall for protection, but we don’t do that. We believe in exposing kids to all ideas.”