Educators, community react to student scores

By Annette C. Silva

Since release of the statewide scores resulting from Delaware Student Testing Program (DSTP) exams administered in 1998 and early 1999, controversy has rumbled throughout Delaware.
The controversy revolves around the timing, feasibility, preparedness and completeness of the DSTP accountability program, especially since purportedly it will employ a one-time "high stakes" test in the spring of 2000 to determine whether a student meets minimum standards or not.
If not, the student will either go to summer school (to get up to speed) or repeat his or her previous grade.
The statistics, though important as indicators, "should not be used to compare schools," said Acting Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff.
She said the purpose of releasing the scores was to provide the opportunity for school administrators, teachers and parents "to spot schools or grades that need the most improvement."
Locally, the news was not good. Reading skill scores in the Seaford, Laurel, Delmar and Woodbridge districts for 10th graders (who tested consistently worse than did students in grades 3, 5, and 8 because 10th graders had not been exposed early on to upgraded standardized curricula) ranged from 49 percent to 64 percent below standard.
In math, these districts' 10th graders ranged from 67 percent to 75 percent below standard.
Writing skills for 10th graders in these schools ranged from 58 percent to 82 percent below standard.

Education and Accountability
A couple of years ago Donna Zawkrewski, a chemical engineer, viewed the concept of strict educational standards as "exactly what we need."
Zawkrewski, a parent of two children 10 and 13 in the Seaford school system, knows how standards apply to manufacturing—and how to implement them.
As a person who also understands business and the marketplace, she is "well aware that we have to prepare our students to compete in the world."
She appreciates the urgency of upgrading education to "get back to the '3 Rs'."
Today she is still a strong proponent of educational standards (having seen the improvements in her children's writing skills in the last two years), but Zawkrewski also understands that applying standards to student abilities is more complicated than calibrating machinery to specifications.
"I'm speaking personally rather than as a school board member," said Zawkrewski, who also served on a Department of Education (DOE) writing committee that determined cut-off points for acceptable and non-acceptable scores.
In the variety of her experience, Zawkrewski embodies a broad range of viewpoints across the educational and societal spectrum. Zawkrewski's experience is also a way to begin discovering a path through a thorny dilemma.

Community Views
People responded in a variety of ways to the news, depending on their own frames of reference.
Tommy Cooper is a realtor whose business depends on Seaford and Sussex County's image as a culturally desirable place to live, a place where the school districts have been perceived as educational institutions of quality.
"The genie's out of the bottle—these scores affect the economic indicators in our area, the ability to attract new businesses and certainly the property values."
Cooper said he just checked out his "realtor.com" website and saw that Seaford had a low score under the category of "school performance."
So, he believes, the community's fortunes in general and the real estate market in particular, "have been influenced before people consider coming in our door."
He adds that though his daughter graduated from Seaford High School in 1989, "I sent Holly to Seaford High School and never considered doing otherwise. I thought she got a great education. Today, I would not consider sending her to a public school."
However, Cooper added, "I have the utmost confidence in the Seaford School District administrators that they will address and solve this problem."

Norman Reynolds, a retired teacher, has a different view. "The purpose of tests is diagnostic," said the former teacher of English and French in Bridgeville. Reynolds, who taught for 35 years, said he always had high standards for his students. He doesn't really trust statistics either. "There are many things you can do with numbers and scores," he said.
When Reynolds taught high school, the children were generally divided into groups of "college prep" and "vocational" students. "All students weren't expected to perform the same in all areas."
Also, he adds, student populations have altered, now including changed attitudes toward authority figures, less parental involvment and more students who speak English as a second language. He said it is difficult to enforce attendance and he's concerned, even though he would like to see more accountability, "that we'll have a lot of kids dropping out and what do you do with all the kids that fail?"

Dr. Anthony Policastro, a pediatrician and vice president of medical affairs at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital, gave a resounding "Yes," when asked if he would now place his children in a local public school (Dr. Policastro's children are grown).
Though he was educated in a Catholic school system, "I'm a believer in public schools," he said. The part of the equation left out of the student performance accountability and test score picture, he said, is the "all-important responsibility of the parent." (This is the equation that Seaford Superintendent Dr. Russell Knorr calls the "three-legged stool" of teachers, students and parents.)
Dr. Policastro wasn't shocked by the low test scores because he believes the scores reflect the demographics of the area.
"The scores don't take into account the variables," he said, such as educational background and cultural values of the parents. "We don't know much about the tests or how prepared the students were."
As a scientific study, "these scores would be blown out of the water," said Dr. Policastro. Quoting statistics from "The 100 Best Small Towns in America," a book published a few years ago in which Seaford ranked 28th out of 100, he said that in Seaford, 13 percent of residents have a bachelor's degree as compared to the national average of 23.3 percent.
"If parents don't value education, their children won't," Policastro said, adding that a direct correlation is not automatically implied, yet it makes his point that, "They've taken these scores and formed conclusions without considering the variables."
Policastro believes in standards, however, because, as he learned in the Air Force, "What gets measured gets done." His question is, "How do we use the standards and tests—-to improve the system or to hammer the schools, teachers and students?"

Steve Schwartz, assistant superintendent of Seaford schools, said, "I don't know any educator who isn't in favor of standards, accountability and a better education for our kids, but the devil is in the details." Regarding the implementation of the law signed by Gov. Thomas Carper in 1998 stating that students must meet curriculum content standards in a spring semester 2000 test or be required to attend summer school or fail their grade, Schwartz says the details have been overlooked. He doesn't disagree that real consequences are the motivating factor for improved performance, only with the enormity of what rides on one "high stakes" test to determine a student's destination. "We'll need more programs to pick up the 30 to 40 percent of students who are low performers." They need to plan for potential drop-outs. They'll need more support for summer school which Schwartz said is difficult to enforce.
A new teacher appraisal plan to accompany the program hasn't been approved yet and may not be for some time.
Schwartz favors a more rigorous teacher appraisal program. As it now exists, administrators monitor new teachers' classrooms 3 times a year, 2 visits of which are announced.
He favors increasing the unannounced classroom visits to two and including mandated follow-ups in teacher guidance.
Schwartz said he was not happy with the scores but they reveal a lot of things, not least of which are changing demographics.
"When I came here 30 years ago as a teacher, DuPont employed over 4,000 people, many of whom were professionals." The DuPont people were highly motivated and so were were their children, he said.
Now the schools face increasing numbers of low-income students, non-native English speakers, changed lifestyles, single-parent families and a cultural attitude of avoidance of responsibility—-all societal changes.
"We have some problems in school and in society," said Schwartz. "We're going to do our part to work with whatever system is implemented."

Next week: Dr. Patricia Carlson, superintendent of Laurel School District, Susan Nancarrow, a math specialist in the Seaford elementary district and president of the Seaford Education Association, David Blowman, executive assistant to the secretary of education, Nina Shokraii Rees, Senior Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation, and a student take turns in the discussion.