F!RST Education: Testing the Test

Do improving DSTP scores mean that kids are smarter, or that they’re better at taking tests?

Illustration © by Darren Thompson

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As long as there have been No. 2 pencils, there has been standardized testing in Delaware public schools. For the past eight years, that’s meant the hotly debated Delaware Student Testing Program—the yard stick for state content standards and the accountability system du jour.

Amid a heat wave in July, the state released results for the annual assessment, and the news was generally good. Delaware students continued a steady climb toward meeting state standards in reading and math and fell just slightly in writing. At the Delaware Department of Education, the mood seemed light. “I think we’re doing wonderfully,” says Robin Taylor, the department’s associate secretary of assessment and accountability. “The results from year to year continue to improve, and it’s a nice slow, steady increase, which is exactly what you want.”

Yet some people across Delaware wonder if better test scores equate to better education. Are students truly becoming better equipped for their future, or are they simply better test-takers?

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.

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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,” Taylor says. “That means either being prepared to go to some sort of post-secondary school or to go out and be a productive member of the workforce.”

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.

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Simple enough, but some feel miffed by the fact Delaware seems to be placing all its eggs in the DSTP basket. The focus on a single high-stakes test is what’s driving school reform in Delaware, says Yvonne Johnson, and that’s not a good thing.

“The reason our test scores are improving is because everyone is very focused on these tests,” says Johnson, a parent member of the Red Clay School District board and one of the state’s most vocal critics of the DSTP. “It doesn’t matter what test they use. It’s all about getting these kids to perform well for federal funding. So you’re going to see improvement. Teachers are forced to teach to the test. They lose their creativity. And when March comes and goes, the school year is over.”

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 H.B. duPont Middle School, which her daughter attends, the DSTP is being used to determine class assignments. For example, if a sixth grade student scores a five in math, she is automatically placed into pre-algebra, the highest-level course available. By mid-term, she says, half the pre-algebra class had dropped out.

“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 Singapore is tops in the world at mathematics, and those are the kinds of questions [educators in Singapore] ask. And if it’s good enough for Singapore, it’s good enough for Delaware.”

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. Delaware isn’t unique, she says.

“Mathematics in the United States tends to be very repetitive. A teacher could teach the mechanics again and again, and the student thinks, ‘OK, I’ve done that.’ Other times, I don’t think we go deep enough into some of our topics. We don’t teach math to the depths of understanding that other countries do. As the kids get older and the classes become more mathematics than arithmetic, then they don’t make a good transition. I’m not just talking about Delaware. This is on a national level.”

A new testing program could soon erase a lot of doubts. Several school districts, including Red Clay, Brandywine and Christina, have begun piloting a computer-based program that tests students three times a year to measure their academic growth. The multiple-choice questions are presented on a computer screen, and guide the student through questions to determine to a very specific degree, grade levels and problem areas. For example, if a fifth-grade student correctly answers a question about measuring angles, the next question will be slightly harder. If he answers incorrectly, the next question will be a little easier.

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 Oregon, North Carolina and South Carolina.

“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

Wilmington Christian School celebrates a major birthday this month—as well as the success of its mission. by Carol Kipp

When classes resumed at Wilmington Christian School in September, excitement ran higher than normal. Upper school students convened in a separate, two-story wing, and a greatly expanded facility was closer to completion. By next fall students will be eating lunch in the school’s first cafeteria and gathering in a new state-of-the-art auditorium.

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 Chase Center on the Riverfront October 7. The event is expected to draw as many as 500 alumni, parents and faculty.

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

Lore Avenue, basically an old house that held first, second and third grades. From there we went to a series of churches, where we had to take all our books home on the weekends so the place didn’t look like a school.”

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.”