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The theory behind one charter school's packed testing schedule

I recently reported about one mother’s high marks for the amount of testing at her son’s school, Explore Charter School in Brooklyn. Today I asked Morty Ballen, Explore’s founding principal, exactly how often Explore students are tested.

That depends on how testing is defined, Ballen answered. “There’s a really big difference between test prep and getting information from assessments,” he told me. Where tests, and test prep, are meant to judge students and teachers, assessments are used to generate information that teachers can use to improve their instruction, Ballen said. Explore prefers assessments.

So how are Explore students assessed, and how often? In a variety of ways, and every day. Here’s a summary of the school’s testing regimen:

  • Students complete tests and assignments that their teachers create on a daily basis.
  • They also take interim assessments several times during the year to give their teachers information about their progress in math, science, and social studies. These tests are created by Explore’s teachers.
  • Explore holds practice runs for both the math and ELA state tests to simulate the testing conditions for those tests.
  • Teachers work with each student one-on-one at least three times a year to check his or her reading skills. The number jumps to eight times for children in kindergarten and first grade.
  • Of course, Explore students take all required annual state tests.
  • Because administrators aren’t sure the state tests are rigorous enough, the school also gives something called the Terra Nova assessment once a year to see how Explore’s students stack up against other students nationally.

Does all of this testing cause students any anxiety? “I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t” fear, Ballen told me. But he said students were quick to support the school’s recent decision to set their performance goal at 100 percent proficient on the state tests. “The adults were so much more scared about this than the kids,” he said.

As a charter school, Explore could face steep consequences if it doesn’t post high test scores. “Those tests keep us in business,” Ballen said. At the same time, he said, Explore’s charter status makes it able to take steps that prevent test anxiety from mounting as the big state tests approach, such as redeploying teachers’ time and energy based on students’ scores on interim assessments. “We can do that within a day, and we can hire people who are excited about that proposition,” Ballen said.

Another important feature of testing at Explore is the school’s focus on getting students and parents to understand the need for frequent assessments, Ballen said. About Stephanie Campbell, the mother I interviewed last week, he said, “She did not know what her kid knew and didn’t know until he was in second grade and came to Explore. That’s scary!”

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