Saturday, March 7, 2009

Rethinking the DSTP: putting the cart back behind the horse

My daughter calls it the Delaware Student Torture Program.

I had to admit to her last year that between 1992-1995 I co-chaired the Social Studies Frameworks Commission and then in 1998 served on the Performance Indicators Committee that went into the design of the Social Studies component of the DSTP. She didn't actually care that I have spent multiple years criticizing the DSTP as essentially worthless in its current form: she just holds me responsible.

Now the state is seriously reconsidering the DSTP--finally.

Lieutenant Governor Denn and Education Secretary Lowery are in the initial stages of suggesting the replacement of the DSTP with a summative test at grade-level and benchmark adaptive tests during the year. That summative test is unfortunately still necessary, at least until the worst provisions of No Child Left Behind are repealed.

The benchmark idea, which has been in play in several Delaware school districts for a couple years now, is tremendously important:

The second is a benchmark test that would be administered at the beginning, middle and end of the year for immediate feedback on how a student is doing in a particular subject. The benchmark test would adjust to a student's ability, so when a child is struggling, the difficulty of the questions decreases and when the student is excelling, the computer program switches to harder questions.

This is critically important. Why?

The mantra of the early 1990s was that assessment drives instruction--not standards. Essentially, this is the idea that the only thing that will force teachers to force students to learn specific material that is valued by the educational bureaucracy (both State and Federal as well as education interest groups) is high-stakes testing.

It is a coercive model in which standards are used as a restraint rather than a support, and in which students are treated like industrial products to be quality tested rather than human beings to be nurtured and educated.

The benchmark idea allows districts to test students on an ongoing basis during the year, so that teachers receive virtually real-time feedback on student performance while they can still do something about it.

That's good, but incomplete.

Unfortunately (and what follows is so wonkish that probably nobody but kilroy or pandora is going to enjoy it), the Delaware content standards in the core academic subjects contain too much material.

When we wrote these standards in the early 1990s, the latest education fad insisted that content standards should more or less cover virtually everything to be taught in a given course.

Problem: educational research now substantiates the fact that this was a huge mistake. Content standards should cover no more than 35-40% of the core material for any subject at any grade level. Again, why?

Because a 35-40% core forces the designers to make tough decisions about what is essential for students to know and be able to do; allows teachers to engage in actual teaching, rather than merely parroting a curriculum; and--most importantly--allows time to re-teach content and skills that benchmark tests show students have not learned.

This is absolutely critical and generally completely ignored in course planning. We pretty much give students one chance to get the material, test them on it, and then penalize them for what they don't know, while moving on to material they won't understand because they didn't ever master the previous unit.

Benchmarking gives teachers a tool to use in planning, to place re-teaching time formally on the schedule.

Students who master the material the first time, can be provided enrichment assignments, designed to give them more insight into the subject, while students who didn't receive supplemental instruction to bring them up to standard.

Unfortunately, our education programs at universities, and our professional development programs in the school districts rarely provide teachers the skills to do appropriate planning for this kind of instruction. They don't teach them to plan time for re-teaching in a differentiated classroom as part of the regular planning process. They don't provide teachers with the skills necessary to re-teach effectively rather than to simply repeat the lessons that children didn't understand the first time Re-teaching is a sophisticated skill, and cannot effectively be done on the fly; it has to be planned from the start.

There is potential here, in the Denn-Lowery initiative to reform the DSTP, for significant changes in public education in Delaware that do not require the expenditure of bazillions of dollars like Vision 2015, but leadership and modest investments in professional development to equip our teachers with a few new skills.

This--unlike the Rodel Foundation's big spending fantasia--has a realistic chance of being transformative even in an era of tight budgets.

[By the way, ask yourself about the Delaware Way and the DSTP sometime. Only in Delaware would we have turned over the development of the DSTP to an educrat--in this case, John Tanner--who negotiated the contract for scoring the tests as a DOE employee and then went to work for vendor with whom he negotiated the contract, and nobody found anything wrong with this picture. We got the DSTP as it stands today because of a sweetheart deal between DOE and Harcourt Brace, despite the fact that for multiple years the scoring of the DSTP was hopelessly bungled. Maybe Lillian Lowery, the woman who cleaned up the financial mess in Christina, will be the person to clean up a lot of the darkers corners of DOE. We can only hope.]

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