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DC’s public school students, like those around the country, are taking new, more rigorous standardized tests this month. And teachers are anxious about whether students are prepared to do the kind of reading and writing the tests require.

Students in both DC Public Schools and charter schools are taking new tests designed to align with the Common Core State Standards. Questions on the old tests were almost all multiple choice, and they related to one reading passage at a time. But the new tests ask students to provide written responses comparing two or three challenging texts and citing specific evidence for their answers.

In addition, for the first time, almost all DC students are taking the tests on computers or tablets rather than in paper-and-pencil form. That means children as young as third grade will need to demonstrate keyboarding and other computer-oriented skills.

Students in grades three through eight and some high school students are taking the DC tests, which come from a multi-state consortium called PARCC.

The tests have drawn criticism around the country. Parents in some states are refusing to allow their children to take the tests, saying they’re too hard and badly designed.

There’s no sign that DC parents are engaging in an organized opt-out movement, and teachers and administrators I’ve spoken to say they believe the rigorous tests are part of a worthy effort to revamp education.

"PARCC is the best accountability test I’ve ever seen,” says Phyllis Hedlund, chief academic officer at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. “This is the way we should be asking kids to think.” The old tests set such a low bar, she says, that they were really “a waste of time.”

Still, at a recent meeting to prepare for the tests, many DC teachers voiced anxiety about whether, at this point, we might be asking too much.

Worries about computer skills and writing ability

The meeting was part of an effort spearheaded by E.L. Haynes to help teachers in both DCPS and the charter sector adjust to a new era in education. Some of the teachers had been meeting since 2011 to learn how to meet the demands of the Common Core, but recent sessions have focused on the practicalities of the PARCC tests. While the tests include both math and reading sections, the meeting I attended focused on reading.

Many of the concerns raised by teachers had to do with the mechanics of a computer-based test. Most schools have many fewer computers than students. So, rather than having the entire school take the test at the same time, schools will have classes take turns on the computers. That means the entire testing window can run as long as four weeks.

And once students get onto the computers, they’ll need to know how to type and use a cursor. They’ll also need to scroll down, highlight or drag-and-drop text, navigate between tabs, and be able to compose an essay without writing it out first in longhand.

Even some teachers at relatively affluent elementary schools, where children are most likely to have computers at home, say their students don’t have these skills. Schools are trying to teach them, but it’s not clear kids will have learned them by the time they take the tests.

More fundamentally, teachers don’t know whether students—especially low-income students and those still learning English—will understand the complex reading passages on the test. Even if they do, they may not be able to comply with directions to write essays analyzing the material rather than just summarizing it, and to cite specific evidence in support of their answers.

"They don’t understand what it takes to put something in writing so that someone else understands it,” one teacher said.

And even if students can do those things, they may not have the time to demonstrate it. Under the old tests, students had unlimited time to answer the questions, at least theoretically. The new tests are not only harder, they impose a time limit.

Teachers at last week’s meeting traded ideas on how to make it easier for students to do well on the reading tests. Have them first focus on the question they have to answer, one teacher said, so they’ll know what to look for. Tell them they don’t need to read the different passages in the order they’re presented, said another, because later ones may be easier to understand.

For students to do well, schools need to make fundamental changes

But if schools want kids to do well on these tests in the long term, they’ll need to change both what and how they teach.

Many elementary schools focus on reading comprehension skills at the expense of subjects like social studies and science. But comprehension depends on a reader’s background knowledge and vocabulary. Affluent students often acquire that knowledge and vocabulary at home, but many low-income students don’t. And if they don’t acquire it at school beginning at an early age, they’ll fall further and further behind their middle-class counterparts.

Schools also need to change the way they teach writing. To the extent that students have gotten formal writing instruction, it’s mostly been focused on writing about themselves, or perhaps on how a story relates to their own experience.

But the Common Core and the PARCC tests ask students for detailed written analyses of texts. One DCPS elementary school teacher at the meeting told me her school has no program that teaches students to engage in that kind of writing.

And many of the readings on the tests relate to scientific or historical subjects. As another teacher at the meeting complained, English teachers may not feel equipped to help students write about those topics. That’s a good point, but the answer is to have history and science teachers also incorporate writing instruction into their classes.

Some schools have already begun focusing more on content rather than comprehension skills and on teaching analytical writing across the curriculum. But even there, change will take time.

Jessica Matthews-Meth, an instructional coach at a low-income DCPS school where many students are still learning English, says the writing program her school has been piloting for the last two years has helped students with the kind of writing PARCC calls for. But many students are still struggling to write good sentences, let alone well constructed multi-paragraph essays. (Disclosure: I have contributed to the pilot program and serve on the board of the nonprofit organization that promotes the writing method it uses.)

One comment I heard frequently from teachers at last week’s meeting is that, even with all this preparation, no one really knows what to expect from PARCC. But one thing we can safely expect is a decline in scores.

That won’t mean schools—or teachers or students—have gotten worse. It might mean that some of the questions on the tests aren’t well designed. But it will almost certainly mean that long-standing deficiencies in the way schools have been teaching are finally coming to light.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.