With tests, school chief wants progress over punitive measures

With tests, school chief wants progress over punitive measures

After receiving yet another poor report card from Washington via Richmond, school officials say the standards set by the No Child Left Behind legislation need tweaking.

Alexandria City Public Schools flunked the recently released the states Adequate Yearly Progress reports mandated by the No Child Left Behind legislation, though seven of the citys 19 schools met federal approval. 

But educators and school administrators consider the legislated benchmarks flawed and unfair. Current tests generalize a nuanced school system, they say. 

Ultimately, the NCLB and AYP with one test are not indicating how well our schools are doing, said Superintendent Morton Sherman. Im a firm advocate of accountability, I dont want to duck from [us owing] the kids the ability to read and do math The test itself doesnt take into account where the kids are from one year to the next.

To improve accountability, Sherman wants to move to value-added assessments, which measure how much a child has learned from one school year to the next rather than the current model: a pass or fail standardized test administered to students annually without a nod to their performance the prior year. 

The emphasis would be on student progress, not meeting a certain percentage of pass rates, Sherman said.

Value-added models are part of an ongoing revolution in student assessment throughout the educational community, said City Councilman Rob Krupicka, also a member of the state board of education.

Right now, the way we do national accreditation, it doesnt allow us to show progress, he said. We set a benchmark and then punish people who dont meet the benchmark. Youre not going to make the benchmark overnight.

Richmond is moving away from how the federal government historically has measured student achievement and could make it possible for Alexandria to adopt value-added assessment. The state board of education is studying whether the new model is preferable to the current system, according to spokesman Charles Pyle. 

While switching to a new system would remain a district-by-district decision, he believes value-added will be fairer to local schools.

Theres a second advantage to the value-added system: For administrators it would show how well students are learning on a teacher-by-teacher case. Underperforming educators and teaching methods can be identified and addressed, Pyle said.

At the center of the discussion are the students and whats best for them, he said. This is all about students and we now have this ability to look at data in a very sophisticated way. Why wouldnt you want to look at this data and include what it has to say in the process of evaluating teacher?

Questions remain about the calculations used for value-added assessment. The National Academy of the Sciences cautioned the U.S. Department of Education against adopting value-added models without further study in a 2009 letter. Not enough is known about all of the variables involved to use the data in teacher evaluations, according the letter.

Educators are concerned they could be held accountable for factors outside of their control like a child who cannot speak English but they still want to learn what works and what they could be doing better, said Tracey Bailey, former National Teacher of the Year and a director at the Virginia Professional Educators.

Though Bailey understands his colleagues concerns, hes excited by the new way of thinking about assessing student achievement.

[The value-added system] allows us to intervene and track each child individually. It allows us to tie some of those successes back to different teaching styles or curriculum, Bailey said.

School Board member Arthur Peabody also sees promise in value-added assessment. Given Alexandrias unique and diverse student population, moving beyond arbitrary benchmarks makes sense, he said. 

I think it holds great promise, Peabody said. It seems to me measuring growth gives us a better assessment tool.