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Learning not just about test scores, educators say

July 25, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Is there more to education than good test scores?

Certainly, but testing has its place, those in the field say.

The Herald-Mail explored the long-standing debate over "teaching to the test" last week, when Washington County Public Schools officials celebrated good news in the latest Maryland School Assessment (MSA) results.

District officials said they're thrilled that every elementary and middle school in the county met the Adequate Yearly Progress standard for reading and math test results and attendance figures.

"I really believe that it is important that we align the curriculum ... with instruction and with assessment," said Donna Hanlin, assistant superintendent for secondary education. "We should be measuring what we are teaching."

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In Washington County, "there is a very tight alignment, and that is a lot of the reason for our success," Hanlin said.

Denise D. Fry, president of the Washington County Teachers Association, said Maryland's Voluntary State Curriculum sets minimum standards on what students should know, although schools can exceed them.

A typical academic year, she said, might be three-quarters of instruction based on curriculum and one-quarter of additional focus on individual children.

Extra time might be spent on keyboarding, writing or learning a foreign language.

Kenneth Witmer Jr., dean of Frostburg (Md.) State University's College of Education, said it's reasonable for teachers to prepare their classes standardized tests.

"Their first responsibility is to see that students are successful," he said. "It would be a disservice otherwise."

At the same time, test results shouldn't be treated as the ultimate or only measure of learning.

"It's not the lack of appropriateness of the assessment, but it's how it's interpreted," Witmer said.

Learning, he said, is more than just acquiring knowledge.

Western Heights Middle School Principal Stephen P. Tarason -- whose school showed significant gains this year in its percentage of students earning proficient MSA test scores -- said there are other ways to gauge how well students do, although many factors tie together.

"If attendance is up and behavior problems are down, (scores on) tests will go up," he said.

Tarason said he would like to see a "growth model" of assessment. Comparing, for example, last year's sixth-graders to this year's sixth-graders might mean less than seeing how last year's sixth-graders fared in seventh grade.

Fry agreed.

For now, though, school systems must follow federal No Child Left Behind Act standards. Schools that don't keep up could be placed on a watch list and be subject to state takeover.

Also, public perception of schools is tied to Maryland School Assessment and High School Assessment exam results.

"There's a lot at risk here," Fry said.

For the last three years, Washington County Public Schools has used a Classroom-Focused Improvement Process (CFIP) to closely gauge students' progress. CFIP teams of teachers, administrators and specialists meet regularly to analyze data, such as test and quiz results, and discuss specific ways to help each student.

Hanlin said CFIP teams use software to generate classroom and schoolwide reports.

CFIP gives the county a more structured, focused approach to monitor student learning, she said.

Fry said students learn in various ways, such as by listening, seeing or touching. The team approach to instruction and the need to continually devise new ways of reaching children reflect that realization, she said.

Witmer pointed to the "multiple intelligence" theory of Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor, who examined different learning styles, such as linguistic, musical and intrapersonal.

Those concepts might not be reflected in a standardized test, which might be a critical measure, but only one measure of "the process of learning," Witmer said.

Becky Sottile, the mother of a Western Heights Middle School student, boiled down the debate.

Sottile said her daughter, Taylor Jones, who is going into eighth grade, has done well in her classes and MSA exams.

"What is on the test, they've taught," Sottile said.

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