ARLINGTON, Va. — Students in the military’s school system have made “significant gains” on a standardized test that measures progress in core subjects of math and reading, according to education officials.

Between 2002 and 2004, students in the Department of Defense Education Activity system, which includes students both in overseas schools and military schools in the United States, showed increases in the “above the standard” and “at the standard” levels of the TerraNova standardized test, which measures student progress in core curriculum subject areas.

A contributing factor to the increase in scores is the school system’s special focus in three areas in the past few years, said Janet Rope, the administrator for System Accountability and Research at DODEA.

“First is a focus on our high school programs. We have added new, more demanding courses, increased our graduation requirements, and provided teachers with training to help them meet student learning needs for all students,” she said.

A few years ago, the system focused on reading programs. Last year, math was the focus.

“We are developing more specific descriptions of what students need to know and be able to do in the field of math,” she said.

For example, a section from the sixth grade standards requires students to solve problems that use rational numbers, interpret and use ratios and find and use prime factorization of composite numbers.

“DODEA has also focused on our students with special learning needs. We have removed some of the nonteaching responsibilities from our special education teachers, which gives them more teaching and learning time with their students.”

Last year, the system hired 96 educators whose primary role is to administer diagnostic tests to special-needs students, she said. Before, special-education teachers administered those tests.

A rough measure

The TerraNova is part multiple-choice, part short answer, and covers reading, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.

The increases are measured in one, two and three percentage point differences, which taken in the aggregate are significant, Rope said.

“A change in test scores from one year to the next of one to five points for an individual student should not be cause for parental concern or celebration,” she said.

“Student scores can fluctuate several points without a real increase or decrease in what the student knows or can do. [But] when you total scores for over 60,000 students, a change of one or two is very important.”

In general, standardized tests can provide a rough measure of how well students are performing and can be a useful benchmark to compare one system or school to others, said Walt Haney, a professor in the School of Education at Boston College and a senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy, or CSTEEP.

He does not oppose the use of standardized tests, but cautions against using them as the sole barometer to measure student progress. Tests should be used in conjunction with other measures such as homework, projects, class participation and extracurricular activities.

“When you have a test that is being developed and normed and administered nationwide to a group that is not very familiar with it, they tend not to score as well. … They have to put that statistic into some perspective.”

Haney said parents should be active in students’ schooling to ensure they’re getting a variety of lessons.

“There’s widespread concern that schools are increasingly teaching to the tests rather than teaching the broader curriculum,” Haney said. Local, state and federal governments link funding to the outcomes of standardized tests, and the results impact teaching and administrator jobs, and a school’s status in public opinion, he said.

DODEA does use results of standardized tests to set programs, teaching techniques and curriculum, Rope said.

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