Tom O’Malley knew that the fourth grade classes at Birney Elementary had been a success — but the numbers said it had failed.

O’Malley said two years ago, he and a fellow teacher got a crop of children who were badly behind. They helped the students improve, making even bigger gains than the last classes they taught. But because the kids didn’t do as well as the earlier class, who came in ahead and scored higher, test scores seemed to drop.

“I felt like a failure as a teacher,” O’Malley said, shaking his head. “I’m not one of these teachers who are scared to be held accountable. I just want to be held accountable for what I actually do.”

His story underscores a nagging problem with test scores, especially under No Child Left Behind: Schools are gauged by how well they do from year to year, but nobody is comparing the same children. When school officials say that fourth grade math scores sunk or soared, they really mean that one class of third graders — the class from last year — did well or poorly compared to the next class of third graders.

That might not be a big deal if all classes are alike. But as O’Malley knows, that just isn’t the case. And because No Child Left Behind also pressures schools to push children over a set bar, it overlooks the gains of children who still fall below that bar or are already far above it.

Researchers have found that the tests perversely push schools to focus chiefly on the kids who are just shy of that mark and ignore others, such as gifted children. And it can reward schools simply for luring in children who are already successful.

San Diego Unified wants to change that by measuring how much each student grows from year to year, creating its own way to judge whether schools are succeeding. It is part of a national push that has educators turning to different tests and new ways to crunch data. Here, the school board is keen to measure whether every child makes a year of growth.

Board President Richard Barrera says the switch is a more sensible way to show what schools are doing. Everyone seems to agree that gauging growth for individual students is a good idea, from teachers unions to corporate reformers to President Obama, who could make it part of a revised No Child Left Behind. But what it would look like in San Diego — and how it would work — is unclear.

Number crunchers disagree on whether San Diego Unified would need to use new tests to make it work. California already imposes a set of tests on schools, but each test is chiefly designed to measure what the child learns in that grade, and each has its own grading scale. They don’t necessarily line up from grade to grade, making it hard to judge how much a child has grown from year to year.

Julian Betts, who heads the University of California, San Diego economics department, said there are ways to adjust the data for the different tests to compare their results. But it isn’t perfect. School district officials say they would need something new to make it work.

“We really don’t have anything right now that would work for all grades and subjects,” said Ron Rode, executive director of research and evaluation in San Diego Unified.

Just north of San Diego, Poway schools have had a test that can measure growth for nearly a decade. It tracks how students are performing over time, and unlike the state tests, it can closely measure students who would otherwise shoot off the charts or lag at the bottom. As children answer questions on a computer, the test adjusts to their level, sending harder or easier questions their way.

“I could really target my outliers. How high are your high achievers? What do they need to work on?” said Laura D’Acquisto, who teaches fifth grade at Los Peñasquitos Academy, one of the highest scoring schools in California. “And for our low students, I could see — where does their knowledge start to break down? How far back do I need to go?”

Students’ scores are easily compared from year to year on a seamless scale. Teachers in the North County district ask children to set their own goals on the test, which shows how they fare in different skills, such as vocabulary or reading comprehension.

Teachers bought in and used the test because they were reassured that the scores wouldn’t be used to evaluate them, said Eric Lehew, executive director of learning support services in Poway. Lehew called it “turning off the accountability gene.” That probably wouldn’t be an issue in San Diego Unified, where the school board has already been loath to link tests to teacher evaluations.

But when San Diego Unified began experimenting with the same test this year, it ran into other problems. Technical glitches dogged the test. Interim Superintendent Bill Kowba told the school board that it wouldn’t be feasible to expand or even continue the program unless it could be reworked.

“It was a misfire,” said Katie Anderson, a parent who leads a district committee on gifted education. Far fewer schools than originally planned are using the test, so only 9,400 students will take it instead of 28,000. “It’s too bad because it was really promising stuff.”

There are other, less technical obstacles to expanding the new tests: It costs money and it takes time. Tests that aren’t absolutely necessary could be hard to justify in a budget crunch; an internal team has already recommended ending them. The test is expected to cost $120,000 for less than 10,000 students this year.

Many teachers and parents have already said they are weary of testing. Though the program could replace an existing test, teachers would still need to do the state tests for No Child Left Behind and possibly more. School board member Katherine Nakamura said the school district has to avoid stacking up more and more “bureaucracy.”

“You can have the greatest test in the world, but it’s on top of the 10 or 12 tests that teachers are already doing,” said Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union.

Betts, the economist, said he believes that San Diego Unified already has the skills and data to change its system, but the budget woes and other stresses, such as thin staffing, could get in the way.

“They know exactly how to do it,” he said. “But they’re under extreme pressure.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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