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.
Over at North Myrtle Beach Middle School, students shift out of their regular classes every Friday into math groups by ability and into English, science, and social studies classes grouped by reading scores, to practice skills or perhaps study an issue in greater depth using more-challenging texts. Last year, the percentages of middle-schoolers reaching or surpassing proficiency in math and language arts rose by 12 and 15 points, respectively. (The faculty will be watching Washington hopefully, however. Their disabled learners' progress in language arts, though encouraging, has been too slow, and the school has been labeled as needing improvement.)
The most radical experiment is underway at North Myrtle Beach High School, where ninth graders are divided into "houses," and those in Franklin House study English, math, science, and social studies independently at their own pace. Each morning, half of the 107 freshmen in the house (whose abilities range the spectrum) report to the big, comfortable learning center to study on their own; consult one on one with any of the four teachers staffing the center; or gather in small groups to review geometry concepts, debate the merits of capitalism versus socialism, or consider the themes of To Kill a Mockingbird . After lunch, they move to regular classes for their electives while the other half of the house works in the center.
Mastery is the goal, and nobody starts the next lesson without wrapping up the current one with a grade of at least 85 percent. Those who need extra time will get it during summer school and may even continue ninth-grade work into next year; high achievers might be taking college courses by the time they're seniors. "I've got more than 100 kids, and they're all at different places," says math teacher Tim Graham, who, on a recent morning, administered three different exams, ran three review sessions on different material, and helped a number of students work through problems.
Gaining ground. Though it's impossible to know how students in Franklin House will fare in the long run, testing results over the first year show that more students have gained ground--and more ground--here than in the other two more-traditional ninth-grade houses.
But all that freedom can be a problem for many students, at least at first. "I might have to go to summer school," says Javon Roggerson, 15, who admits to "slacking off" for too long in the beginning, so that he has to finish three books for English in the next few weeks. Now that he's got the hang of it, though, he intends to nab a spot in the sophomore version planned for next year.
For many educators, the appeal of having data on student growth to guide instruction is overshadowed by fear that the numbers will be used to penalize schools and teachers whose students are standing still. After all, more and more states and districts are implementing "value added" accountability systems that consider student gains as one measure of performance.
In Horry County, administrators have minimized teacher anxiety by mining the data not for punitive purposes but to be sure that those who need support get it. Virginia Horton, principal of North Myrtle Beach Middle School, holds at least three conferences with each teacher during the year to consider student progress and, when necessary, figure out how to improve what's going on in the classroom. "My instruction has changed dramatically," says Sarah Mottola, a language arts teacher. When she moved to the school last year, Mottola found it difficult to raise reading scores: She was teaching classes at three different grade levels and lacked prep time with the other teachers. Now, as a seventh-grade teacher, Mottola plans three times a week with two colleagues, and they all share their proven methods. Her kids are among the biggest gainers.
This story appears in the May 16, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.