Volunteers at the vast mosh pit-like testing center at ORP have come down with exhaustion, worn down by our extensive use of a muscular fiberglass tube and nylon fabric. They are sedated to stop the heartbeats that cause discomfort, a few of the more generous volunteers have been stretchered onto an examination table as the heart beats so hard we cannot hold our breath anymore, there is nothing left in the trial.
No one seems particularly concerned. They are tired, the material is chafing, the PVC rubber is literally greasy and we are putting out a lot of heat. But for the 3-6,000 volunteers who regularly undergo this evaluation at ORP, the tests are a chance to make the nation bigger and better, to see what it can do to really test its students. The task they are given is to review more than 3,000 text books every day in class. Through ORP, 2.8 million students per year receive help to understand what they have been reading. The assessments are either completed, or automated to have them completed by volunteers by May or by students by June. They are ranked by their reading mastery every eight weeks.
The results are highly effective. Evidence from the Netherlands has shown that the effectiveness of literacy tests increases when one analyses results for each child annually, as opposed to once every three years. When an eighth-grader cannot read more than just one page of the American Revolution and Life is blue, the results are not all that surprising. Not if you know what has been done in the Netherlands to create and nurture strong, well-trained teachers.
There are a few things that make the U.S. DOE program less effective than its Dutch counterparts. First, the less time a child spends on tests, the more likely he is to think he isn’t failing. Second, a graduate level ISE, the Institute for Educational Leadership, with a 3-5,4-5 grade-point average, is awarded by the student or the teacher based on their previous year’s test scores. The U.S. program gives kindergarten through third-grade students their scores on a final test at the end of the school year. As a result, there is little motivation for some children to participate in all the standards testing and less incentive for teachers to retrain their strategies as they go through the day. Not that proficiency scores are not a useful tool. In some cases, children are able to transfer a letter into a letter within a book.
In the U.S., however, teacher-driven districts with testing requirements for all students, lack imagination for the ways in which these assessments can contribute to the student’s learning and contribute to measuring their progress in ways that go beyond the boxes and scales they are measured on. Only 22 percent of the Netherlands’ public elementary school children take the state assessment. Instead, teachers from the student’s home district administer the teacher-modeled ISE and report to the school administration for use in the teacher’s lesson plans. Some schools even have model classrooms, eliminating the need for the fourth-grade reading engine that comes with the state assessment.
These practices have helped to create effective schools. Ninety-one percent of sixth-graders are on grade level. Ninety-five percent of fifth-graders are reading within their grade level. Even kindergartners have access to models that can be used on their next reference book.
We know more and more about the impact of reading on student development and success in school, but access to high-quality, expert-designed assessment is too often a luxury that is reserved for students and teachers in affluent communities. Closing the achievement gap demands better information. And that makes the OECD approaches the answer. By pulling together national data sources, a central user’s system and standards development, the international system ensures that every adult in the population is aware of the needs of all learners. And what this means for all is a better understanding of how well schools, districts and teachers support instruction and results.
People from all across the country regularly visit ORP to see our results and learn from the teachers, school administrators and educators who have done something so unique. It is what the United States could be if policymakers across the nation had the confidence to develop the measures, interventions and evaluation tools the profession requires to ensure success and prepare students for success.