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Jim Cox

Pat Puleo

Ask An Expert:
Jim Cox and Pat Puleo

Measuring Up: A Parent's Guide to Testing, Grades, and Assessments

Jim and Pat answer questions about the ways that educators measure students' work. If you have a question, send them an e-mail. Your question may appear in this column unless you request that we not publish it. [Index to archived questions]



CURRENT QUESTIONS (most recent at top):

1. My child has learning delays. How can I choose a school that will do a good job mainstreaming her?

2. How can I decide which school will be best for my kindergartner?

3. What exactly is a common assessment?

1. I'm looking for the best elementary school for my daughter, who has learning delays in both language and motor skills. I want a school with a high rate of success in moving special-needs kids into regular classrooms.

There's no specific way to compare the effectiveness of schools at moving special-needs kids into regular academic programs. You can find out how many of a school's students with disabilities met the very high bar of "proficient and above" on California state standards tests by using the California Department of Education's Web site. Go to this web page, then scroll down and click on "School Level Reports." Type in the name of a potential school and select "2003 AYP Phase I Report." You will see the school's percentage of students with disabilities meeting the AYP criteria. Note that all special education students are lumped together in this report, be they resource students, in special day classes, physically handicapped, severely emotionally disturbed, etc.

However, the percentage of students scoring at a certain level on a standardized test is not the only measure of a high-quality school or program. You must also consider the experience level of the faculty, the opportunity for special education teachers to work with regular classroom teachers, how the school writes its Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and how accommodating it is to parents during the IEP process, and the structure and philosophy of the school's programs (are there full-inclusion options, pull-out classes, etc.). Each child's learning style and emotional connection to the instructors and support personnel are also very significant factors.

To make your decision, consider test scores but also visit each school. Learn about its different programs and observe classrooms at each site. Those factors will ultimately be your best gauges of any school's quality and appropriateness for your daughter.


2. My son will begin kindergarten this September. His father and I are divorced and live in different school districts. My neighborhood schools are very good, and I could spend afternoons at home with my son, which I think is important. However, his father insists that his district will provide a better education. I'm torn. Can test results tell me which is better?

Facts help, but you'll need good judgment (and luck) to know what to do with them. Go to the School Wise Press web site to look at each school's Academic Performance Index (API) and CAT-6 test results, as well as useful information including student demographics, teachers' experience, student/teacher ratios, etc.

The answer to your question is much bigger than test score comparisons, however. What makes a school good is very complex. Besides the regular program, consider extracurricular activities, programs for students with special needs, the approach to instruction. Is the school environment very competitive? Cooperative? In which environment would your son most likely thrive? Sometimes it can all boil down to the personality of the kindergarten teacher. How well that person nurtures students' love of learning can affect your son's academic career profoundly.

Parental involvement is also very important to a child's academic success. How easily can you and/or your husband volunteer in class or attend school activities? How will the choice of schools affect the rest of your son's waking hours—for example, how much time will he spend in daycare?

You both need to visit the schools under consideration. Meet with the principals, visit classrooms, and talk with teachers at several grade levels to get an overall picture of each school. You can decide about high school later; for now, do what makes the most sense for the next five to seven years.

Most important, you both need to be calm and supportive at this important milestone in your son's life. Children entering school need lots of love, support, and enthusiasm from both parents.


3. I am unclear as to what a common assessment is and how it differs from a district assessment or standardized state assessment.

A common assessment is one developed or selected by a school district, or it's a standardized test. Therefore there may be no difference between it and a district assessment or a standardized state assessment. These assessments are used to evaluate a program (not individual students). Often a special program—for example, an afterschool program—is funded by a grant and run by the district. The program may be functioning at different schools or sites throughout the district. According to the terms of the grant, the program evaluator needs to administer a common assessment so that the different sites can be evaluated in the same way, and the results can be compiled and compared. This information gives the district the opportunity to evaluate the program both in its entirety and at the individual sites. At each site, the assessment would follow the same testing protocol, such as when the test is administered, the amount of time allowed for it, and so on.

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