These exams also put teachers to the test

At any point during the academic year, the teachers and principals at Locke High School know precisely how much progress their students are making toward satisfying state standards. Several times a year, all students take benchmark exams, with the results loaded into a computer so that teachers and administrators can analyze their progress within a day or so.

Did they spend enough class time on the circulatory system? On sentence structure? Are they moving quickly enough through the math curriculum? How should they change instruction so that students will know their material in time for the California standards tests?

After each benchmark exam, one experienced biology teacher races to the office of Principal Ronnie Coleman, who heads the two Locke academies for 10th through 12th graders.

“He could not wait to get his exams scanned,” Coleman said of the latest round. “He wanted to print out individual student reports. He took them back to his kids and did some cool exercises around the exams focusing on the areas that gave them the most trouble.”

You can discern a lot about the changes at Locke this year in just a casual visit. Since the former Los Angeles Unified school became a Green Dot charter, students sit in class instead of wandering the halls or smoking marijuana on the roof. Open any classroom door and you find an energetic teacher engaged in instruction instead of screening a movie to fill time. Basic improvements -- but transformational for this Watts school.

There also are less visible yet equally important changes. Teachers embrace accountability; they accept and even prefer having their classroom performance be transparent to principals and one another. Administrators give teachers the power to develop new ways of improving and measuring instruction as long as they are willing to be held responsible for the results. And both sides understand that rules are rules, for teachers as well as students, and that the refusal to abide by them carries consequences.

These are perhaps the most telling lessonsfor L.A.'s public schools to learn from charters, and the use of benchmark exams is one of the best illustrations of how the two systems differ.

L.A. Unified has benchmark exams too -- called periodic assessments -- and has gathered evidence showing that these regular, standardized tests are associated with improved student performance. But a significant minority of teachers have never administered them, seeing the tests as an intrusion on their time and teaching styles. After the teachers union called for a boycott of periodic assessments in January, participation plummeted. An April report on elementary math tests, for example, showed that the district received results for just under half its students. Though Supt. Ramon C. Cortines has talked a tough line about requiring the assessments, there have been no disciplinary actions.

Such an outright breach of policy would be unthinkable at Green Dot schools, where teachers also are unionized but the contract allows them to be fired “for cause.” But the problems with the district’s tests aren’t solely caused by recalcitrant teachers. Green Dot’s exams are created by a panel of teachers from its various schools. The panel regularly reviews the results, assesses the tests’ effectiveness and tweaks them accordingly. Because the tests are created by faculty, they carry more credibility with teachers and better reflect curriculum goals.

L.A. Unified’s tests were written by an outside company and imposed from above; they didn’t mesh with year-round schedules and in a few cases didn’t even mesh with the curriculum. Cortines says the district recently made the needed improvements and that he is open to having teachers create new exams, but that no one has come forward to do so.

Last year, when Locke was still run by L.A. Unified, the California standards tests showed that only 4% of its algebra students had mastered the subject by year’s end and only 12% were considered to be at the “basic” level. Results in other subjects weren’t much better.

In an all-out effort to change the school’s dismal performance, teachers at Locke now watch their students’ progress constantly. Teachers and principals (there are several for the various academies set up under Green Dot) can and will readily tell you how many students in each of their classes are at or near proficiency and how many lack even basic skills. Teachers whose students score poorly spend observation time in the classes of the most successful instructors, on their own campus or at other Green Dot schools.

Whether all this effort will result in rising test scores won’t be determined until a few years of California standards scores are in for Locke. The odd thing, though, is that L.A. Unified’s experience offers the best evidence that the benchmark exams work. Jefferson High School saw its Academic Performance Index score, the state’s key measurement of academic progress, rise by an impressive 59 points last year, far higher than its 17-point target -- an improvement that Cortines credits in part to the school’s embrace of periodic assessments.

L.A. Unified teachers who resist the assessments say they have their own tests and other ways of knowing whether their students are making headway. That may be true. But it can be easy, in the isolation of the classroom, to become so absorbed in a favorite subjectthat the class is in danger of not learning required material. Teachers who thought their students understood logarithms might get a jolt of reality from a standardized test while there’s still time to do something about it. “The teachers in some of the schools that need it the most are the most resistant,” Cortines complained.

As the most important figures in a child’s schooling, teachers must be empowered to design programs and exercise their creativity. But if they want such authority, they have to accept the transparency and accountability that go with it. Charter operators such as Green Dot are bringing the days of the unwilling teacher and the closed classroom door to an end.

Previous editorials in this series can be found at