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Teachers, DODEA clash over use of new testing system

Zachary Smith, left, and Nicholas Von Eicken, second-graders at Ramstein Elementary School take turns reading and answering questions about a story during a "cooperative buddy" reading activity. The Department of Defense Education Activity is investing much time and money into its early literacy program, including implementing a new time-intensive reading assessment for more than 30,000 students in kindergarten through third grade.

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The largest union representing educators at U.S. military schools stateside and overseas is fighting the implementation of a new reading assessment for tens of thousands of Department of Defense Education Activity students in kindergarten through third grade.

The dispute pits some educators, who say the assessment takes too much time away from classroom instruction, against DODEA management, which is tying the assessment to the importance of early literacy and its goal of having every student reading at a third-grade level by the end of third grade.

The Benchmark Assessment System, BAS, is the first standard reading evaluation to be used across all DODEA early primary grades, according to educators. It requires teachers to hold an individual reading conference with each student not only to evaluate reading skills, but to gain information to guide classroom reading instruction.

Schools assessed students’ reading levels prior to BAS, educators report, with a variety of tools, such as the Developmental Reading Assessment, a standardized reading test, and Reading Street, a series of books also used to gauge reading abilities. But BAS is the first reading assessment adopted across all of DODEA for students in grades kindergarten through third, according to educators.

The aim is to evaluate about 32,400 students in grades K-3 two times per school year. Teachers currently are authorized up to six days of substitute coverage to give the assessment.

DODEA launched the assessment two years ago as a “pilot” program. In September, the agency signed agreements with two of its smaller teachers’ unions — FEA-Stateside Region and the Overseas Federation of Teachers — to proceed with an implementation plan for the assessment DODEA-wide.

“When we bargain with them on issues that come up throughout the school year, sometimes we develop memorandums of understanding … on how we’re going to implement a particular program that may impact on their working conditions,” said DODEA spokesman Frank O’Gara.

FEA, the largest of the three unions, says that DODEA “unilaterally implemented the costly and time-consuming BAS reading assessment, ignoring its obligation to bargain the issue with FEA,” reads an Oct. 3 FEA online newsletter. In late September, FEA filed a “waste, fraud and abuse” complaint with the Defense Department’s Inspector General and a grievance alleging DODEA management illegally implemented the assessment without bargaining the issue to completion with FEA.

“The time is the biggest issue,” said FEA President Chuck McCarter in a recent phone interview. “It is so time-consuming, with teachers having so many demands on their instructional time as it is. We just got back five days that we almost lost to furlough, and suddenly we’re faced with losing about six days of instructional time … for one assessment.”

The BAS was designed by recognized early childhood literacy experts Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. The program was extensively researched and field tested; about 4,000 stateside school districts use the BAS, which goes all the way through eighth grade, said Vicki Boyd, the senior vice president and publisher for Heinemann, a publisher of professional resources for teachers, including the BAS.

BAS kits for teachers come in boxes containing a series of thin, paperback books with fiction and nonfiction text, for beginning to advanced readers. Each level increases in difficulty. As the student reads aloud, the teacher evaluates accuracy, fluency and comprehension, and asks the student questions about the story. Teachers are trying to determine at what level a student can read independently and at what level the student needs some guidance in order to progress. Assessment time varies, but educators generally plan on 45 minutes, and another 15 minutes to enter test data.

With about 18 students per class to assess, that’s too much time to devote to one test, no matter how valuable, say some educators.

“It’s taking too much time away from instruction, especially with having to give it twice a year,” said Terese Sarno, the FEA Kaiserslautern district representative. “There are other tests that are more user-friendly and can give you the same results and are not as time intensive.”

No one, including FEA leaders, disputes the quality of the assessment.

DODEA officials say the return on investment is worth the time commitment.

“One of the biggest things that we know is that early literacy is vital for our students,” said Lori Pickel, DODEA chief of early childhood education. Research shows that reading proficiency in third grade is not only a predictor of high school graduation, “but success in life,” Pickel said, “so we’ve really put a commitment towards that. We know that we have to provide teachers with the instructional and assessment tools that will help them identify what a child needs to become a proficient reader.”

To that end, DODEA spent about $4.4 million to purchase and implement BAS, according to figures provided by the agency. Initial costs include the materials — one $310 assessment kit per teacher — professional development and substitute coverage for teachers.

The FEA’s IG complaint charges DODEA is “using time and resources that could be better spent otherwise,” McCarter said. “When the budget is so tight these days, when schools are being told that they’ll be short on paper, that they may not have supply budgets this year, this seems to be expensive.”

DODEA officials say costs to sustain the program will be considerably less, with the biggest current expense — $1.5 million annually for substitute coverage — or $100 per day for 11,572 days, according to DODEA. The goal eventually is for teachers to incorporate the assessment into daily instruction without using substitutes, DODEA officials said.

Boyd said, in school districts that have been using the BAS for some time, teachers get more efficient and find they can get through the assessment conferences more quickly. “But more importantly, teachers who have some experience with BAS begin to see the depth and quality of the information it reveals,” she said.

Language arts specialists at Ramstein Elementary School said BAS involves more than just testing for benchmarks.

“Other assessments give you data, that’s true, but this gives me things beyond the data,” said Belinda Sikorski. It helps teachers pinpoint areas students need to work on and offers them specific guidance on how to work on those areas through individualized and small- and large-group instruction.

“I do not know of any other assessment at this point that gives you this kind of feedback and teaching ideas for flexible grouping,” she said. “It helps differentiate your teaching.”

“We want assessment to guide instruction, that’s our goal,” said Terry Greene, DODDS-Europe deputy director for curriculum, instruction and assessment.

“I don’t think anyone thinks we’re losing instructional days at all because [of] this assessment, because ... that conversation (about reading), is instruction,” she said.

“That’s one-on-one time with a particular student,” said Synda Slegeski Buhacerich, a language arts specialist at Ramstein Elementary School. “What better use of my time?”

svan.jennifer@stripes.com

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