Fourth-grade teacher Candy Kwiecinski leads a dictionary lesson with… (Michael Alison Chandler )
Lynbrook Elementary School, which serves one of the poorest communities in Fairfax County, seems to be a model for reform. Three years ago, the Springfield school failed to meet state testing goals in English. Since then, it has charted double-digit gains in passing rates for every one of its closely monitored racial and ethnic groups of students.
But the success at Lynbrook and other schools throughout the state is not only due to better teaching. More and more, students who have struggled to pass Virginia's Standards of Learning exams are taking different tests.
The trend dates to 2007, when federal officials approved an alternative assessment after the Fairfax School Board threatened to defy a mandate to give multiple-choice reading tests to students who were destined to fail -- students who, like many at Lynbrook, were just beginning to learn English.
The Virginia Grade Level Alternative, like the multiple-choice test, assesses students' understanding of the state academic standards. Teachers document learning throughout the year in a binder of class work, including worksheets, quizzes and writing samples. Some special education students and non-native speakers in early stages of learning English are eligible for the portfolio, but final decisions are made by committees of educators and often parents.
Educators say the "portfolio" tests are valuable teaching tools and fairer and more meaningful than multiple-choice tests. With more time and flexibility, students have seen their passing rates soar.
Since 2007, Lynbrook's reading passing rate for students learning English shot from 52 to 94 percent. Among special education students, the rate went from 34 to 100 percent. At the same time, the number of portfolios increased from a handful to more than 100, including nearly half of the English learners and 78 percent of students with disabilities. All passed. The school had more than 460 students last year.
With more students taking the new test, many schools are showing sudden surges in performance. And some parents are concerned the portfolios are muddling scores the public relies on to see how racial and ethnic groups of students are performing and how they compare.
"How do you know we are closing the achievement gap, because thousands of our kids are not being tested the same way?" said Maria Allen, a Fairfax parent and longtime advocate for minority students.
The remarkable gains at Lynbrook fit into a picture of ever-greater success in the region's largest school system. Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale announced record highs in test scores and impressive progress in narrowing achievement gaps this fall. He attributed the progress to "a powerful shift" toward more personalized instruction systemwide.
Dale, who helped lead the fight to provide an alternative test for those beginning to learn English, said portfolios produce more accurate results that are consistent with how non-native speakers perform on multiple-choice tests once they master English. "We are seeing the same great improvement in our kids and our teachers no matter what instrument you look at," Dale said.
In an era of high-stakes testing, school leaders walk a tightrope. They must balance a lofty mandate to measure all students according to the same high expectations with a reality of classrooms filled with children who have trouble processing basic information or who recently arrived from another country. Every state makes some allowances for students who cannot meet testing requirements.
Maryland officials permit students who fail an exit exam required for graduation to do a project instead. District schools offer a "read aloud" accommodation for students with disabilities during reading tests, but began to dial back the program this spring after education officials found it was being overused. Most states offer alternative tests for students with serious cognitive disabilities.
Virginia's move to expand its use of portfolios to include students who are learning grade-level skills is unusual. It's costly. Fairfax spent more than $500,000 to train teachers and score portfolios last year, not to mention thousands of hours of teacher time compiling them. It's also risky. Experts say blending the results of different tests is very difficult. Closely watched trend lines and the accountability system's credibility are at stake.
"Schools or districts that are administering more of these alternative assessments may look better than those who are using fewer, and it may not have anything to do with the quality of the program," said Joan Herman, director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA.
Virginia education officials say they have worked hard to make the tests comparable in rigor and scoring. A Virginia Commonwealth University study found that both tests are "well aligned" to the same academic standards, and the federal government has scrutinized and approved the alternative test.