KIPP Ujima to discontinue placement tests

One of the most sought-after public charter schools in Baltimore has stopped administering an entrance placement exam after city schools CEO Andrés Alonso expressed concern that the practice — the only one of its kind in the city — could discourage some applicants.

The test at Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Ujima Academy in Northwest Baltimore, Alonso said, could deter families of lower-performing students from seeking enrollment.

Since 2003, a year after opening in Baltimore, the school has used a diagnostic exam to determine whether students seeking to enter sixth grade were performing at comparable reading and math levels as KIPP Ujima's fifth-grade classes. If potential sixth-graders did not pass the test, they could enroll, but would have to repeat fifth grade.

Alonso said he became aware of the test last year and asked the school to stop administering it after reading a description of it. Until it agreed to stop the practice, KIPP Ujima's website said the test was a way to determine whether a "student has the skills necessary to succeed" at the school.

"I felt that communicating to incoming parents of sixth graders that their child would need to repeat a grade on the basis of a diagnostic assessment … represented a potential deterrent to parents of those students needing the most help," Alonso said in a statement.

Alonso said the school could offer support for transferring students who were not performing at KIPP's level without tying an assessment to the enrollment process. Other charter schools use internal assessments and diagnostic tests, but do not use the tests to place students in grades.

KIPP Ujima agreed to stop administering the placement test that would have been given early this year, realizing that it could be misinterpreted as a way of attracting only high-performing students, said Jason Botel, executive director of KIPP Baltimore. The school primarily serves students who are below grade level and are from low-income neighborhoods.

Botel said the test was designed to "set [an incoming student] up for success. We did not think it was a barrier to enrollment, but we know it was open to different perceptions."

The school used to advertise that sixth-grade students who passed the test would be accepted, while those who did not would be entered into a lottery to vie to repeat the fifth grade. Botel said that every student who took the diagnostic ultimately had the opportunity to enroll at KIPP Ujima.

For the 2011-2012 school year, students entered a lottery and will be placed at KIPP Ujima based on their incoming grade level.

In past years, the test allowed KIPP Ujima to provide the support incoming sixth-grade students needed to get on the same track as their counterparts who were educated in the school's fifth grade, Botel said. For example, he said, sixth-graders may transfer into KIPP Ujima not knowing their multiplication tables, a skill mastered early on by the school's fifth-graders.

Botel said that this school year, KIPP Ujima has 24 students from other schools who entered sixth grade. Eleven new students repeated fifth grade because their test performance compared with the bottom percentile of KIPP Ujima's students. On average, students coming into sixth grade from other schools are at least two grade levels behind

He said KIPP Ujima did not track data on how many families declined to enroll after the diagnostic test. He said, however, that "there certainly are parents who didn't feel comfortable, but at the same time, we had a significant number of kids who chose to do that."

KIPP runs 99 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The highly celebrated college-preparatory charters are known for rigor, with mandatory 9 1/2-hour school days, summer school and extended school years.

KIPP Baltimore was one of five regions in the country to employ a placement test, according to a Steve Mancini, spokesman for the national network.

KIPP Baltimore recently signed a 10-year-agreement with the Baltimore Teachers Union that will allow it to continue operating in the city and expand its two campuses. Besides KIPP Ujima, the organization opened an elementary school, KIPP Harmony Academy, in 2009. That school never used a diagnostic test, Botel said.

Robert C. Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, which has supported a number of charters in the city, called the diagnostic test practice "definitely debatable." Embry said that charters have historically not had admission standards, not only because of charter law restrictions, but because districts "wanted to see if they got comparable children, if they'd do a better job."

He added, however, that "it is a challenge for schools that move their children ahead faster than some other schools."

Bobbi Macdonald, founder of City Neighbors Charter School and a member of the city and state charter groups, said she understood how the diagnostic test could be perceived. However, KIPP Ujima's intent was in line with what every public school should strive to do, she said.

"If every school diagnosed their children and said, 'We're going to meet you where you are, and we're going to respond with a commitment to bring you up,' that'd be real assessment," Macdonald said. "That's what Baltimore needs."

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