Test Scores Take An Expected Hit. Can Schools Respond?

November 12, 2016

Six of every 10 students are not meeting Arizona’s new standards for math, reading and writing.

PrintSomething somewhere – students, teachers, the standards, or the tests to measure their progress – is way out of whack.

The results actually have been no surprise to those who orchestrated it. As part of its extensive preparations for new standards and new testing, the state Dept. of Education was already preparing a communications plan to address the “anticipated drop” in scores before the tests were even administered.

Apparently all the PR worked. Rather than the outcry that has arisen in some other states, notably New York, the results have drawn barely a yawn in Arizona.

Maybe expectations have fallen so low that apathy has set in. Maybe the parents who care enough to complain already have left the system.  Maybe opinion leaders are resigned to the idea, with school funding being what it is and teachers leaving in droves, that we shouldn’t expect anything better.  Or maybe they believe that certain changes that are afoot will make it all better.

As recently as 2014, nearly 80 percent of students were passing the state’s reading test and more than 60 percent were passing the math test. The state’s then superintendent of public instruction hailed the rising number of schools getting high marks in the annual assessments.

azmerit-1dBut the glory days then came to an abrupt halt.

Arizona had installed the new Common Core standards, eventually renamed “Arizona’s college and career-ready standards,” from 2011 to 2014. That task supposedly completed, the state then went forward with the planned implementation of an entirely new regimen for testing the new standards. In 2015, Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) was replaced by AzMERIT.

Test results fell off a cliff. Not even 40 percent of students passed the assessments for math and English Language Arts – meaning reading and writing – in 2016. As disappointing as that might be, it was still a bit of an upturn from the initial results in 2015.  Achievement Gap Requires A New Paradigm.

Have Arizona’s young people all of a sudden turned stupid? That’s unlikely. Something else is going on here.

The causes of the falloff are wide open to interpretation and question, but the best assessment might be the most straightforward one. It comes in two parts:

The New Measures Raised Expectations – Big Time!

Along with other states, Arizona deliberately raised the bar on expectations. It’s hard to compare starting points with other states but our teachers and students might be feeling that increase as much or more than anyone.

Everyone in education knew going in that the Common Core standards are more focused, more closely knit, more rigorous, and require deeper conceptual understanding. In sum, they are more demanding.

The testing of them has proven equally demanding. Testing deeper conceptual understanding tends to ratchet up the complexity of the questions being asked, frequently with responses that cannot be reduced to a single correct answer on a multiple-choice test.

The combination of new standards and new testing eliminated what the state Dept. of Education has called the “truth gap.”

Under the old system, most students were passing the AIMS tests while at the same time Arizona kept showing up in the bottom quintile of different testing done by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

By comparison today, the percentage of students who are judged proficient on AzMERIT squares up pretty closely with the NAEP results, indicating AzMERIT is giving us an unvarnished view of how our students measure up by national norms.

This re-calibration stings in the short term, but it should help in the long term if our schools – and the rest of us – accept the challenge of doing the hard work to master the new regimen.

Except that . . . wait a minute . . . maybe they hope they won’t have to.

Proposed revisions in reading standards systematically remove any mention of examples that were included in the existing standards.

So, for example, one standard for ninth-graders currently reads:

“Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’), including how they address related themes and concepts.

The workgroup recommends changing it to:

“Analyze seminal/primary documents of historical and literary significance, including how they address related themes and concepts.”

With the ink barely dry on Arizona’s new college and career-ready standards, the State Board of Education in conjunction with the state Dept. of Education is already deep into re-writing them.  Shortly after the initial AzMERIT results were released a year ago, the state convened new workgroups to clarify and otherwise tinker with the new standards.

The math workgroup decided, for example, that the math standards would be easier to understand if the examples (“for example, determine the unknown number that makes the equation true in each of the equations: 8 + ? = 11, 5 = ? – 3, 6 + 6 = ?”) that were initially put into the standards in an attempt to add clarity be systematically removed in an attempt, ironically, to add clarity.

Meanwhile, the English Language Arts workgroup was of two minds.

It kept the examples for the lower grades.  Then, however, for the upper grades, it turned around and eliminated the sample texts that have stuck in the craw of conservatives.  In fact, sanitizing these sections of the standards might be the real reason for the entire re-writing exercise.

Other than bowing to political pressure by ridding the standards, it appears the workgroups are for the most part re-arranging the deck chairs.   The direction of the standards remains intact and the iceberg looms ahead.

The New Measures Require New Methods

There’s an immense amount of work still to be done to get a handle on the standards.  State Supt. of Public Instruction Diane Douglas would be the first to admit as much.

The standards, despite the controversy they have caused, are nothing more than broadly stated objectives

Sample test questions asked of third-graders
Sample test questions asked of third-graders

– e.g., third-graders will learn multiplication, division, and fractions.

But it’s a long road from those broad standards to adequately preparing students for statewide tests that require them, in the devilish part of the new testing regimen, to use their newly learned skills to identify multiple correct answers and to reason through complicated real-world word problems.

Third-graders must use their math skills to reason through this sample question.

Unfortunately, five years into the implementation of the Common Core standards and despite the wide-ranging efforts of the state Dept. of Education to push them along, some districts still are saying that teachers are working to understand some of the standards and seeking resources to teach each of them.

By comparison, the best districts have constructed and are forever working to perfect their internal structures for translating standards into curriculum into lesson plans, putting teachers in rooms together at specified times to work collaboratively on how best to deliver those lessons, and then expecting everyone up and down the line to pore over test results to figure out what needs to improve.

Among the best of the best is the Catalina Foothills School District in Tucson. It is scoring higher on AzMERIT than any other district. Some of this success can be put off to the enviable demographics of its students but that is far from the whole story.

District Supt. Mary Kamerzell doesn’t much mince words.

“Unless a district/school has done the heavy lifting to translate the standards to more specific measurement topics and benchmark expectations for student learning with instructional guidance, results across the system will be uneven at best.”

The public doesn’t need to know the details. It does need to know that districts vary widely in whether they are doing it well or not so well or not at all.

The good news is that AzMERIT itself provides an assist for those who choose to use it. All the public sees are the percentages of students who are judged proficient or not. But this is just the tip of a mountain of data.

Schools can break down which skills and sub-skills were strengths and which were weaknesses by grade, by classroom, by student. Such analysis will show what subject matter and thinking skills they are teaching well and what they aren’t. For those who avail themselves of it, this could a powerful diagnostic tool.

The only way for districts to improve is to look forthrightly and objectively at the system they have, then do the hard work of chipping away at the problems in a never-ending cycle of design, teach, assess, and revise. That takes fortitude and discipline.

One lesson Catalina Foothills learned quickly is that it can no longer use the multiple-choice, single-response exams of yesteryear for its own mid-year assessments. The relative simplicity of those tests doesn’t prepare students for the demands made of them at year’s end by AzMERIT.

The bar of expectations has been set very high. There’s rampant room for improvement all-around.

Even within Catalina Foothills, the best of the best, only seven out of 10 students are getting over the hump. Catalina Foothills is working, district-wide, to improve on that. We have to hope all others are doing the same.