Some 35,800 students in Delaware will get out their No. 2 pencils and spend Mar. 13, 17, 18, 20 and 21 taking tests which will significantly affect not only their personal academic careers but also the entire public school system. These days belong to the sixth annual Delaware State Testing Program.

The experience here is being played out throughout the nation as states move to align themselves with the federal 'No Child Left Behind' law enacted in 2002. Here it also is the capstone of the state's education accountability program developed during the 1990s.

When it comes to raising the bar on education standards, Delaware has a lead on the public school establishment in most of her sister states in terms of the proportion of students whose performance it is measuring, according to Wendy Roberts, director of assessment and accountability in the Delaware Department of Education.

While most of the publicity during the past few years has been concentrated on third-, fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders -- the group now being tested in reading, mathematics and writing -- and the results they achieve, science and social studies tests are also given to fourth- and sixth-graders in October and eighth- and 11th-graders in May.

Parents and teachers, of course, are aware of the testing and the DelDOE's publishing of scores attracts attention, few people are cognizant of what the assessment program entails. Educators at both the administrative and teaching levels have gone to great lengths to establish curriculum standards and determine how students, schools and districts measure up to them.

A key principle in that, Roberts said, is local initiative. The standards were developed by committees of active educators and the content of the tests is largely a local effort. They are published and scored under contract by Texas-based Harcourt Educational Measurement, one of the leading companies in the field. They include some content from the comprehensive Version Nine of the  Stanford Achievement Test but about two-thirds of the content is "Delaware specific."

That, she explained, provides a fair and objective measure of how students fare with curriculums meeting state standards and, in the process, how well their teachers are doing in imparting the required learning.

"We are well satisfied with the program. It is an integral part of our accountability system," Roberts said.

The tests which proctors will draw from sealed packets during the next several days were two years in the making.

Teacher committees come up with appropriate questions -- which include a mixture of multiple-choice, short-response and essay type -- and they are 'field tested' at the appropriate grade levels. Among other things, that pinpoints and eliminates any cultural or other bias that may have slipped in, she said.

Since that occurs two academic years prior to the testing, those children will be in higher grades by the time the questions appear on actual tests.

The committees have to produce between 60 and 80 questions a year.

They also establish criteria that evaluators will use to score the essay-type responses and, again, there are dry runs to evaluate how the scorers at Harcourt adhere to the criteria, Roberts said.

It costs the state about $15 a student to publish and score the tests.

Both the blank tests and the results are controlled by a strict security system, she added. The tests are "kept under lock and key" until testing day. Educators who do have access to the questions are required to sign a confidentially agreement. "Ethics and honor is involved, but there has been no [indication] that has been violated" since the testing program began, she said.

The results are released on a strict timetable. The general public gets the overall tallies for districts and schools; school administrators control access to individual results; teachers get to see individual scores; and parents or guardians receive individual results of their children. DelDOE does not issue a comparison among schools and districts but such can easily be developed, as has been done by the media, by simply ranking the published scores.

Those results determine if students are promoted or require summer school. Tenth grade results begin a two-year process of determining whether a student will graduate and what kind of diploma he or she will receive.

Roberts said there is a widespread misconception that the relatively high stakes involved in the test results lead teachers to 'teach to the test'; that is, concentrate on preparing students to do well on the tests in lieu of giving an understanding of  the subject. Since the tests are directly linked to the state curriculum standards, teachers are able to 'teach to the standards' -- which is what establishing the standards was intended to do.

She said that timing of the test-taking is dictated by the need to have results hack in May in order to determine summer school requirements and grade advancement. To be sure, she acknowledged, new material will be presented during the remaining third of the academic year, but the broad base use to formulate the test questions balances out the 'we haven't been taught that yet' factor. Moreover, she added, the testing is cumulative, including what is supposed to have been learned in prior years.

She said that five years of experience with the testing program and the results it has produced demonstrate that it is an accurate measure of student performance and a statistically valid assessment of trends toward improving that performance.

Posted on March 12,  2003

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Get more information about this topic

Read a Boston Globe account of the Massachusetts testing program
Read an Education Week  primer on the federal 'No Child Left Behind' Act

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