Testament to testing

Nanette Asimov
December 18, 2003

One of the second-graders at San Francisco's Treasure Island Elementary School spent much of last year in the principal's office as punishment for fighting and throwing things in his classroom. The boy couldn't read, and his teacher had no idea why.

This year, the boy took a test that revealed his specific problem: He did not know the sounds corresponding to each letter. That meant he was not ready to learn which letters made up each word. At last his teacher knew how to help him.

"He's reading now," said Principal Greg John. "It's incredible. He hasn't turned into an angel, but he's not in my office every day now, either."

John and the teachers at Treasure Island have become converts to the increasingly popular practice of using frequent tests to diagnose children's academic needs -- a practice they believe can help low-achieving students soar in school.

A new study of 32 Bay Area schools suggests they are right. Researchers from the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative looked at achievement levels in two groups of 16 schools (kindergarten through eighth grade) with similar ethnic and low-income populations. In one group, black and Latino students were doing as well or better than their white and Asian American classmates. In the other group, the ethnic groups reflected the well-known "achievement gap": Less than a third of black and Latino students typically score at the national average in reading, while more than two-thirds of white and Asian American students scored at or above the national average.

The researchers found that schools where black and Latino students' test scores were rising did many things differently from the lower-achieving schools. Most notably, teachers diagnosed students' needs a few times each week then changed how they worked with the kids based on what the data revealed.

"In the education system of our dreams, ethnicity, language, culture, gender and family income would not be good predictors of academic achievement, " said Merrill Vargo, executive director of the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, a group that works with low-scoring schools.

The researchers examined four years of California test data and identified 16 schools where black and Latino children bucked the trend with their success, and 16 where they did not. The researchers then spent a year visiting the schools to learn why.

Besides frequent diagnostic tests, they found that at the higher- achieving schools, teachers were more likely to learn how to analyze data and apply it to teaching. Also, principals usually considered closing the achievement gap a primary goal, more people of color held leadership positions, and school goals were usually clear and focused.

The researchers did not name the less successful schools. The successful ones were: Belle Air in San Bruno; Bancroft and Monroe in San Leandro; Campbell, Monroe and Rosemary in Campbell; Chabot, Roosevelt and Fruitvale in Oakland; Chipman in Alameda; Fredericksen in Dublin; Lincoln, Musick and Milani in Newark; and Patterson and Thornton in Fremont.

At Belle Air and Musick, for example, Latino students started out with lower test scores than their white and Asian American classmates but improved at a greater rate than their classmates between the 1998-99 and 2001-02 school years, the study found.

And at Roosevelt, black students gained nearly six times what was required to meet the school's annual academic targets during the four-year period. Asian American students made about 2.5 times what was required to meet the targets.

Treasure Island Elementary was not part of the study. But Principal John acknowledges that last year his school would not have been one of the success stories because black and Latino students missed meeting academic targets altogether. He said he intends to change that.

"Last year we didn't have a culture that looked at data," he said. "Teachers tried their own approaches to addressing reading, but essentially the problems remained unchanged."

This year, he said, "It's a huge change. I can't think of anything we're doing that's not different."

His kindergartners through fifth-graders are now part of the national "Reading First" program that requires teachers to assess children every two weeks. Results are posted online so John can see exactly what's going on.

Every student in grades six through eight is also tested now in reading through a program called High Point. Kids who read below grade level now spend an hour a day receiving intensive help in just the areas they need.

"This is so much better," John said. "It's changed the tone here. The statement 'My kids can't read' doesn't work anymore. Now it's how can't they read?"

State Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, a Berkeley Democrat, said she is impressed with the study's findings and wants more schools using data.

Ironically, Hancock wrote Assembly Bill 356, now heading toward the governor's desk, which would exempt second-graders from taking the state's annual exam. She favors the frequent in-class assessments, however, because "they can be used right away to focus on what teachers can do to help children. "

If the governor signs her bill, Hancock said, she would like the $2 million that would be saved from not testing second-graders to go for classroom assessments.

"To me, it's really stunning that that kind of ongoing testing really does improve children's learning dramatically," she said. The full report can be found at http://basrc.org/