Teaching To the Tests
A school district tailors instruction to what each student knows and what each still needs to learn
NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. --This week, when Hunter Hamvas sits for South Carolina's state achievement tests, the fifth grader will tackle his fourth round of assessments in math, reading, and language arts since September. He took the same battery of tests last year, too. But Hunter's OK with the regular testing. After all, the mounting evidence of his skill in math has propelled him 18 months ahead of most of his peers at North Myrtle Beach Intermediate School into prealgebra. "It's cool," he says.
Here in Horry County, every single child is expected to progress every year--and not just until he or she is doing acceptable grade-level work. That's what a reform-minded board and superintendent decided five years ago, and they're using frequent testing to make sure it happens. The strategy seems to be working: Last year, the first full year of extra testing, the proportion of kids deemed proficient (or better) rose by 19 percent in language arts and 10 percent in math. In 2004, 89 percent of the county's schools rated an "excellent" or "good" on state report cards. Meanwhile, federal enforcers of the No Child Left Behind Act, under siege by states in rebellion against the law, said last month they would study whether schools should get credit for students' progress toward academic benchmarks as well as for their success in actually reaching them.
Interactive testing. To pinpoint exactly where teachers need to meet students academically, Horry County uses computer-administered tests, designed by Northwest Evaluation Association of Lake Oswego, Ore., that closely track each student's progress up the long ladder of concepts he or she will need to master to graduate. The tests are interactive, becoming more or less difficult as each question is answered to match the child's ability level. Teachers can then tell at a glance which kids need more practice adding fractions, say, and which ones are ready to move on to ratios. (Similar NWEA-designed assessments are now used by some 1,500 districts in 43 states, including all of Idaho.)
"Before, it was hit or miss as to what I thought was needed. This has really helped me focus instruction," says Tammy Adams, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at North Myrtle Beach Middle School, who quickly huddled with colleagues to build in reading comprehension strategies earlier this year when it became clear that many of their students were struggling to interpret nonfiction texts. But besides diagnosing problem areas, testing has "taken the ceiling off" what is possible, says Dottie Brown, principal of nearby Myrtle Beach Intermediate School. "In the past, really bright fifth graders did fifth-grade work and got A's. Now they can do seventh-grade work."
Based on the data, principals and teachers are overhauling the county's schools. They have tossed the traditional one teacher and 25 kids model out the window, and tracking is back--with a twist. At Brown's school, for example, teams of four fourth-grade teachers share about 90 students, splitting them up by test scores for part of each day to attack specific skills in math and language arts. One group may work on identifying characters in a story, say, while another discusses how the characters influence the plot. Then everybody reports to his or her heterogeneous "base" class for the rest of the fourth-grade coursework. Nobody's ever stuck in a group: Master a skill, and you're on to the next, often in just a few short weeks.