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High school students avoid test preparation

Five months after my first visit to Dunbar High School, its new administrators appear to have made progress, but they say they have a long way to go. The security guards are more active in urging straggling students to get to class. Those who are frequently late have to listen for an hour to an adult telling them why that has to stop.

Teachers are more comfortable, but they still worry about being evaluated in part on their students’ scores on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests in one of the city’s lowest-performing schools, the administrators say. At least they teach more students than they did before. Daily attendance has increased from 67 to 79 percent .

How well students will do on the DC-CAS this spring is in doubt. D.C. School Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee handed Dunbar and Coolidge high schools over to a New York City school management company, the Friends of Bedford Group. Its officials had a good track record in New York, where they significantly raised student achievement at a school in an impoverished area of Brooklyn. But they are having some difficulty getting Dunbar students who must take the DC-CAS to show up for the extra teaching they need.

George Leonard, chief executive officer of Friends of Bedford, is frank about his problems at Dunbar and Coolidge. His chief lieutenants share his candor. Niaka(pronounced Nah-KEE-ya) Gaston, 34, the chief operating officer, and Bevon Thompson, 35, the chief financial officer, sit in an undecorated office and report bad news without hesitation.

The DC-CAS is designed to be given to sophomores. It is the only measure of a D.C. high school’s achievement rate under the federal No Child Left Behind law. But with so many students lagging behind the usual high school pace, officials have to be precise about what defines a sophomore for purposes of taking the exam. Students must have completed, or be close to completing, geometry and sophomore English. Some of those who fit that profile have been enrolled in high school for three or four years.

Such students are often reluctant to come to class, or to school. Total enrollment at Dunbar is 739. Of those, 138 have been identified as qualified to take the DC-CAS this year, and 113 of them have taken at least one of the BAS tests designed to determine their reading and math weaknesses to help them prepare. (In 2009, 179 Dunbar students took the exam.)

Dunbar administrators have 25 tutors working two hours after school every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, to help lift students from the Below Basic level of the DC-CAS, where many of them are, to the Proficient or Advanced level, where they should be.

How many of the 138 have shown up for tutoring? “About 45 to 50,” Gaston said.

Some teachers resist the notion that they should care so much about the DC-CAS. When they express that view, they hear strong retorts from the Friends of Bedford administrators. “It is a cop out when teachers say, ‘I am not interested in teaching to the test’,” Thompson said. “A large number of your students, if you are teaching correctly, should not fall into Below Basic.”

At least the teachers at Dunbar, many of them hired by the Bedford group, have shown more buy-in to what the administrators are doing than the teachers at Coolidge, many of whom were there before the change of administration, Thompson say.

Coolidge enrollment is 613, of which 118 should be taking the DC-CAS this year. How many have shown up for tutoring? So far, only about 30 or 40.

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By Jay Mathews  | March 28, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Bevon Thompson, Coolidge High School, DC Comprehensive Assessment System tests, Dunbar High School, Dunbar improving slowly, George Leonard, Michelle A. Rhee, Niaka Gaston, students avoid test preparation  
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Love the straightforward reporting.Yes, the students sit for the test, but it is the administration which is evaluated by their performances.
This is unlike the NYC situation for Friends of Bedford.There, students face their own high-stakes Regents exams as well. In DC, once students are qualified as sophomores and directed to take the DC CAS, they never take it again, whatever their performance.
So, you can appreciate why at least one other DCPS high school administers a multi-$000 dollar incentive schedule, including lottery eligibility, in order to get students to show up, and to motivate the students to do their best.

Posted by: incredulous | March 28, 2010 11:18 PM | Report abuse

Love the straightforward reporting.Yes, the students sit for the test, but it is the administration which is evaluated by their performances.
This is unlike the NYC situation for Friends of Bedford.There, students face their own high-stakes Regents exams as well. In DC, once students are qualified as sophomores and directed to take the DC CAS, they never take it again, whatever their performance.
So, you can appreciate why at least one other DCPS high school administers a multi-$000 dollar incentive schedule, including lottery eligibility, in order to get students to show up, and to motivate the students to do their best.

Posted by: incredulous | March 28, 2010 11:19 PM | Report abuse


Well stated.

For me, NCLB had two major flaws: (1) Annual Yearly Progress as opposed to growth models where the school could figure out how each student was performing instead of being judged as part of a cohort of students; and (2) Money set aside for schools to offer tutoring. Thorndike's Law of Effect states that individual's will tend to repeat those things in life which they have been successful at and shy away from those where they were not (or something to that effect). So if there's a fifteen year old performing poorly in school (from the time they entered school as a five year old) what in God's name makes anyone think this youngster is going to get themselves to after-school or Saturday tutoring? In most instances, this kid is going to avoid tutoring like the plague. And I'm not sure I'd blame him one bit. The only ones who benefited from the tutoring program were the companies or individuals who ran the tutoring sessions. Any in depth analysis of this would quite likely uncover a great deal of hanky-panky (at least from some services) on those doing the tutoring.

Posted by: phoss1 | March 29, 2010 7:29 AM | Report abuse

Jay, seriously, is this the best we have to offer our students?

Test prep by hired guns?

This certainly isn't what I would want for my child.

Is this what you would want for your child?

Or is this simply what you think is appropriate for other people's children?

Is this your definition of education?

Why don't we just hand over all of DCPS to Kaplan?

Posted by: Nemessis | March 29, 2010 8:29 AM | Report abuse

The column says that Rhee "handed over" the two schools to the private company. Is that right or did they take them over in return for remuneration? It would be good to know just how much the company stands to make out of this deal. Are there financial incentives for the company based on student test scores? If so, what are they?

With all the cheating that has gone on in DCPS, what is being done to make sure test scores at these two schools reflect the ability of students to meet standards and not the ability of students to cheat on the tests?

If the company gets compensated based on student test scores then the potential for cheating is exponentially greater. What is being done to make certain agents of the company do not engage in cheating?

Posted by: kronberg | March 29, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

More and more folks are finding out that the D.C. fatherless welfare children cannot be saved. They devolved into eating, mating, and killing long ago; school is just a place to get free breakfasts and lunches and also to sell drugs.

Posted by: tjhall1 | March 29, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Has anyone studied why test prep actually works? If it's because it teaches specialized test-taking skills like strategies for multiple choice questions, pacing yourself, etc, then it seems like a waste of time that produces illusory improvements and should be banned in the schools. But if it's because it actually manages to teach students the essentials of, say, geometry, then we ought to replicate it everywhere.

Posted by: qaz1231 | March 29, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

The definition of a sophomore throws me and points to more issues than the test scores. how is it DCPS gets kids to the point of being juniors and seniors and they have not met all the sophomore requirements.

Are these folks placing the onus on the kids or the teachers for not taking advantage of the tutoring?

Posted by: oknow1 | March 29, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

tjhall1, STFU!

Posted by: forgetthis | March 29, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Those next to last 2 paragraphs sound like unsubstantiated hits on the teachers, probably those at Coolidge.
What exactly are the administrators looking at, just the kids to score better than basic on DC-CAS?
I'd bet most of these kids have poor academic background as well as poor study skills that aren't going to be overcome in one year, certainly not to let the kids score at advanced.

And is this the only high school district wide test for the kids?
Atleast in MD we have several content area HSAs.

That said, these high schoolers probably did not benefit from the curriculum changes put in place by C Janey, changes that have led to a rise in the NAEP scores for DCPS over the past few test cycles.
Good article, but we need more information.

Posted by: edlharris | March 29, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

I can't tell anyone how to improve the test scores of Dunbar students but I can guarantee teachers can raise their students' test scores by doing the following:

Get a job at a high-performing school in an affluent neighborhood. If you can't, get your applications out now. Call the districts frequently, especially during the school year when there might be unexpected resignations. If you are a new teacher, do not accept a position in a low-performing school under any circumstances. It's best to move to another part of the country, accept a position as a substitute teacher, or teach in a private or parochial school until there is a public school opening. If the private school pays well, you might want to stay there.

It's teacher-bashing time in low-income schools right now, so teachers need to be prepared to protect themselves.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | March 29, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

And is this the only high school district wide test for the kids?
Atleast in MD we have several content area HSAs.

Yes, this is the only district wide test, and there is no incentive to do well.

At my school the kids are numb from the 4 practice tests they have taken so far, and really have no interest in doing it a 5th time. None of them have any incentive to do well aside from the "goodies" (IPods, Ipads, gift cards etc...) that my administration is giving them for good scores.

If you really want to see improvement on test scores and education in general in the district, you do something like the SOLs in VA or HSAs in Maryland.

Students should have to pass 6 or 7 of these in core courses to graduate. You don't pass them all, you don't graduate. This puts an onus on students to work, and I bet you'd see a LOT more parents getting involved with their kids educations (including not tolerating poor teachers) if their kids had to pass a real, independently graded exam.

Of course, this would actually be raising expectations, which would cause a fairly substantial drop in graduation rates, which is politically unacceptable to our (or any) school district, no matter the value of setting clear expectations and expecting our kids to meet them.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | March 29, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

So they've put in the corporate model and it's not working. Now what? Can the previous teachers sue for wrongful termination?
the business model doesn't work in education. what role is the student? A worker? Can't fire them. A material for production? Can't can't get a new supplier because of poor quality. A client? What happend to we reserve the right to refuse service to anybody? Oh yeah, that's what they do at charter and private schools.

Posted by: patnmi3 | March 29, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad you liked the straight reporting. I thought it would be a refreshing change from my usual rants. All of the points above are well taken, but I have a different view of what many of you call test-prep. I call it teaching. All teachers have assessments, which they usually call tests. All teachers do their best to make sure that their students learn the important stuff, which is what they are going to put on the test. The test tells them if they need to teach more, or better. That is what is happening here. My question would be, what can they do to make sure more students show up for the extra teaching? For those who think this kind of test prep is wrong, what would you do instead?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 29, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

These two schools, among others, have always had issues. It's not that the kids are dumb and lazy (even criminals are smart). Teacher competence, lack of resources, and an antiquated curriculum are a huge part of the problem. But DC kids typically go to their neighborhood schools, and these kids have a lot of other issues that they deal with regularly both at home and in their environments, which may be crime ridden and without active much parental support for whatever reason. Is it an excuse, no. But educational excellence can't just rely on testing because anyone can study just to pass a test, but actual learning and retention for application is how our country will continue to advance (esp. in light of all of this country's outsourcing). The schools and the city need to make a better effort to actually find out what is causing such a high dropout rate. Kids of the 1950's are very different from kids of today in many respects, including learning and its expectations.

Posted by: lidiworks1 | March 29, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Wow! I just don't know where to begin with this story. There are over 138 10th graders at Dunbar that will sit for the DCCAS, yet only 67 to 79% attend class daily and 40 to 50 show up for the tutoring sessions. (Having taught at Dunbar, I can state that these numbers represent no significant gains).

At Coolidge, of the 118 that will sit for the test, only 30 to 40 show up for tutoring. I missed the daily attendance percentage for Coolidge.

Even with these dismal attendance statistics, the administrator--to whom DCPS is paying an undisclosed sum to turn around the school--somehow finds a way to lay the blame at the feet of the teachers!!?? This scapegoating has got to stop, and these over-paid administrators, Rhee included, have to develop enough ethics to start to shoulder some of the responsibility for raising the achievement levels of these students. What blueprint do they have in place to aggressively integrate the student's home and school life? Is it working? What do they need to adjust to make it work. Let's be realistic...the teachers can't follow them home, see that they turn off the boob tube or whatever other electronics on which they are fixated, and make them study. How many home visits have these high-paid, education charlatans made? What exactly are they bringing to the table beside a lot of empty rhetoric not supported by much substance.

I met Mr. Leonard when he was interviewing to take over Anacostia. During those interviews, which were tantamount to exercises in futility, I remember Mr. Leonard being asked what he would implement at Anacostia to encourage parents to take more responsibility for the students' participation at school. He replied that he teaches the students as if the parents do not exist. I've never forgotten his response and, frankly, I've never understood it. Perhaps it's time for him to rethink his approach. Considering all the money he must be paid, he needs to work a bit harder to address the holistic needs of the students. Otherwise, why do we need him wasting the taxpayers money?

By the way, it would make interesting copy if the WaPo would file an FOIA request to acquire the contracts between DCPS and these so-called managers. I think that taxpayers deserve to know exactly how much of our money is being wasted.

Posted by: vscribe | March 29, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Exactly Jay, what can teachers do? The fact of the matter is there is nothing consequential, positive or negative, to make these students take part in their own education. They do not see what you and I know. That an education is the key to a better life. Their lives are immediate, and passing a test is not going to change anything in their lives immediately.

Posted by: patnmi3 | March 29, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Jay: Judging by your defense of test prepping (or "teaching"), I don't know whether you didn't see or didn't know the answer to my question. If test prep increases scores by teaching test-taking strategies and tricks (and this is certainly done by professional SAT prep outfits) then it should be banned and replaced by content-based instruction. If it increases scores by increasing students' understanding of math, then great, maybe they should replace all regular classroom instruction with test prepping. Has anybody looked at exactly what makes a successful test prep program successful?

Posted by: qaz1231 | March 29, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

" to help lift students from the Below Basic level of the DC-CAS, where many of them are, to the Proficient or Advanced level, where they should be. "

If the entire class did move from Below Basic to Advanced, the school would have automatically been suspected of cheating. Because, despite Jay's assurance as to where these kids "should" be (nice bit of editorializing there), it is statistically so unlikely as to be impossible that kids who were Below Basic can get to Proficient, much less Advanced.

It's quite possible that the kids could work studiously all year and still be below Basic. Remember, Jay, in order for average to exist, some kids have to be below average.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 29, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Test prep is teaching? Brilliant, Jay. Thank you for clearing that up.

Now we can turn the whole school system over the Kaplan.

Posted by: Nemessis | March 29, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

qaz1231---That is not what most of this time is spent doing. There is some work on the mechanics of taking a test, the same kind of instruction the suburban kids get (and get even more of when they spend their own money on SAT prep courses). But for Dunbar and Coolidge kids most of the time is spent working on math problems, overcoming weak spots, like division by fractions, and most particularly learning how to read for meaning, how to understand what a question is asking, how best to find the answer, in other words doing all the things that a good reader learns to do in school. This "test-prep" time is designed to make them better students, and more likely to graduate from high school and go to college.
I will pass on to Bill Turque vscribe's good suggestion that we try to see the contracts given to the Bedford group to oversee Coolidge and Dunbar and the Friendship folks to oversee Anacostia. Though I suspect, knowing Bill, he put in a request for this long ago. Such arrangements have become increasingly common in cities throughout the country. In some places, like Philadelphia, research has shown some success, but I don't think we have the final answer yet.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 29, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Okay...allegedly wasn't it at Coolidge just last testing era...that the Principal was praised for innovative way of having students report for the DC-CAS test. Allegedly, I do remember that the former principal being paraded before his colleagues for thinking outside the box. Then allegedly all of sudden DCPS does a leave audit on this same principal and a resignation was commenced.

Now, we have a management company [Bedford]...who's been mentioned through council member testimony just recently on not being present as much as one would have thought. As for Dunbar wasn't this new principal being applauded for his "Joe Clark" way of handling issues...apparently this movie will not have a happy ending.

Really was Washpost just going a tad bit overboard with the insinuation that we have a failing comprehensive high-school with 10th graders who have been catergorized at that grade level for 3 to 4 years. This statistic revelation is to coincide with Rhee's 3rd year on the job and success of potentially signing a teacher's union contract.

Robert Bobb, get back here what you're experiencing in Detroit is nothing like what's here in DC.

Posted by: PowerandPride | March 29, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

A test is a learning tool. Standardized tests are all about teacher accountability and data collection...not about student learning and thinking.

I'm scratching my head...if these students don't come to school, period...why would anyone think they'd show up for tutoring? Frankly, I'm amazed they have as many as they do. Now there's throwing away education money!

Use these kids as a core and SELL the importance of being educated. The local education community needs to buy advertising time on the radio, television, the web, etc. I bet the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation could reach more kids by spending money on advertising during the NCAA than any grant they award.

We are dealing with these kids like they think like us...they don' is "us" that needs to get with the program.

Posted by: ilcn | March 29, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I think Vscribe hit an important point. We can't keep teaching as if parents don't exist. There may be a large percentage that could care less of their kids succeeds but even getting a minority percentage in will have an influence on the wider student body. You certainly wont get the attendance out with out going to parents and figuring out what is happening. One of the worst character traits at DC by just about any school in the system is the assumption that parents don't care and that you don't need to communicate with them. Kids know you hold their parents in disregard, it is not like you are going to get their support with that attitude. Many parents may not know how to help the child, they may be frustrated with failure, they may be sure the system is against their kid, but without them this system cannot succeed. We don't need all of them we just need the majority.

Posted by: Brooklander | March 29, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

Linda the Retired Teacher: it is sad, but not surprising, that a former teacher counsels today's teachers just to abandon ship. Unfortunately, that attitude is evident widely in DC schools, good and bad.

What are your ideas to improve the schools, from a teaching point of view. What would you do for the students at Dunbar and Coolidge?

Posted by: axolotl | March 29, 2010 10:59 PM | Report abuse

Marginal high-school students being taught to divide fractions? Educators think this a priority? Considering the students' low literacy and high-risk to exclusion from mainstream society --and worse-- after school leaving, this is not educational malpractice?

Yes, the algorithm can be taught, and retained if drilled repeatedly, maybe for months. Do these students perform before instruction more poorly than most over 30's? (May I make up a statistic, that given 1 minute to divide 6 2/3 by 2/3, fewer than 30% of all college grads will answer correctly?)
If teachers in HS spend scarce time this way, is it any wonder so many students choose the General Educational Development certificate (GED) as a better investment? Can you sincerely argue they are wrong to do so?

Posted by: incredulous | March 30, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse


Yes, I too feel bad about the attitude I have taken, but I believe the present teacher-bashing is a form of discrimination against women and will not stop until teachers are accorded the gratitude and respect that they deserve. Also, a school like Dunbar is probably not a healthy place to work right now so prospective teachers need to keep that in mind. Everyone has a right to a safe working environment.

My experience taught me several things about education. Number One is the critical importance of a partnership between home and school. I don't believe that a teacher can do the job alone, although there are always exceptions. Number Two is the fact that children learn from one another. For this reason, it is always desirable to have a mix of high and low achievers in one school. Also, it's important for a school to have a culture of respect for learning and appropriate behavior.

So I would improve the test scores of Dunbar students by encouraging them to seek an education elsewhere. They need to get out of a consistently low-performing school because they will be adversely affected by the culture of the school. They need to find schools (magnets, charters, etc.) that are succeeding and try to get into them. If the student is academically talented, he should apply for a scholarship to a parochial or private school. (These scholarships should NOT be tax-supported.) If the parents can afford to move into a more affluent district, they should do so. I would also like to see public school vouchers so students can attend schools in other communities.

So, yes, I think the teachers should jump ship, and so should the students. No one should have to teach or attend a school that is low-performing and dangerous.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | March 30, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

"the present teacher-bashing is a form of discrimination against women"

This is why no one takes teachers seriously anymore. This is exactly why.

I am shocked. I couldn't imagine someone writing something more damaging to the respect that feminists fought so hard for, buy you did.

Posted by: bbcrock | March 30, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

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