A daring bet at Belmont

If this were a standardized test about standardized testing, it would follow a format like this:

Standardized testing in California has:

(a) Led to greater accountability.

(b) Narrowed classroom instruction.

(c) Prepared students for college.

(d) Set teachers and administrators at each others' throats.

(e) It's complicated.

OK, so the testing gurus would never let us get away with (e), the real answer. But as important as it is to measure student progress, there's no getting around the effect that high-stakes annual testing has had on pedagogy. It encourages teachers to give more lectures and more short-answer tests that reflect the format of the annual standards exams, and it discourages classroom discussion and long-term projects that call for in-depth research and sophisticated writing skills.

The annual tests offer a needed measurement of whether large numbers of students have a basic command of certain knowledge and skills — data the country was lacking for decades while students, especially those who were poor, black or Latino, fell further and further behind. Still, let's pretend for a moment that the nation wasn't light-years away from preparing every student to score as "proficient" on these tests. Even if they could all get 100% of the answers right, there's still a good chance that employers and universities would complain about the quality of students coming out of our public schools, because they need people who can analyze information, write about it, figure out new things to do with it and present their thoughts verbally. Multiple-choice tests are generally poor measures of such higher-level skills.

It was a refreshing change, then, to hear about the new plans for Belmont High School. Dale Vigil, superintendent for the local subdistrict of the Los Angeles Unified School District that includes Belmont, pushed through a vision for the low-performing school that included teaching students to be fluent in at least two languages as well as introducing more project-based learning and requiring them to show their mastery of a subject by writing reports or devising a science experiment.

With about 1,300 students, Belmont is small compared with most comprehensive high schools in L.A. Unified. But this effort to turn its low-scoring students into analytical, articulate, globally-oriented adults taps into some of the biggest issues facing U.S. education today: the heavy hand of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, actions and reactions by school officials and teachers unions, the unintended consequences of multiple-choice tests and the tendency of school reforms to be structural — changing schools to charters or revamping teacher tenure laws — rather than emphasizing what happens inside the classroom.

Vigil almost ran his grand vision into the ground at the start. Instead of consulting with teachers — many of whom have been complaining for years that they would like to do more project-based lessons — he announced that as a persistently failing school, Belmont would be restructured under No Child Left Behind. Teachers would be required to reapply for their jobs; before they could be rehired, they would have to sign a compact that Vigil would draw up specifying how much schoolwork would be in project form and what percentage of each class would involve discussion instead of lecture. Vigil said he was doing this to guarantee that teachers would "buy in" to his vision, but it was an unwarranted slap at a school that, although it has not met all of the rigid specifications for improvement under No Child Left Behind, has made dramatic progress during the last several years — so much so that district Supt. Ramon C. Cortines publicly praised the school on more than one recent occasion.

Teachers could have reacted with outrage. Instead, a union official contacted Vigil and suggested that this become a joint project between teachers and administrators. Under the new agreement, Belmont will not be deemed a persistently failing school and teachers will not have to reapply for their jobs. They will still have to sign a compact on the outlines of Belmont's new endeavor, but they will have the lion's share of the responsibility for drawing it up.

School administrators, take note: There is better buy-in for a new initiative when teachers are made a part of it. Candidates currently running to become president of United Teachers Los Angeles also have something to learn from this. Rather than taking a hard line on reform issues, there is often more to be gained by coming to the table and trying to work out a solution.

That still leaves the issue of standardized tests that need revision in California and across the nation. Vigil concedes that Belmont's scores might actually fall for at least a couple of years, because the tests don't generally reward students for learning how to write, speak, research and attain fluency in multiple languages. Yet these are the very skills needed for college and beyond. Vigil's vision for transforming classroom instruction rather than moving the chess pieces of education makes Belmont High the site of one of the most exciting school reforms we've seen lately.

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