With new standards test, schools in for rude awakening

This year, Alaska got the OK to start judging schools using its own measurements instead of the standards required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. But with new metrics come new — and more difficult — tests, and state officials are expecting to see student performance fall as a result. 

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(Photo by Josh Davis/Flickr CC)

It’s rare for standardized tests to get any love. Most kids hate taking them. It’s not uncommon to hear teachers and education experts say you can’t get a real sense of how much students learned in a year from a few hours of filling out bubbles. In the spring of 2015, expect a whole new complaint: that for the past decade, Alaska’s assessment tests have been telling us that our kids are smarter than they really are.

Rep. Lynn Gattis, a Wasilla Republican, was less than thrilled when she heard this from Deputy Education Commissioner Les Morse at a legislative hearing on Wednesday.

Gattis: But next year, my child — still the same kid, still the same reader — could very well fall way down below because of our new standards?
Morse: That is potentially possible.

That year, the current “Standards Based Assessments” will be replaced with something new, and that something will almost certainly be more challenging.

The state committed to adopting a new test when it decided to implement Alaska-specific standards. The Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) also supported moving to a harder test because they felt the current one had a sort of inflationary effect. More than half of Alaska students entering the university system need remediation, and employers have told the agency that graduates from the state’s public high schools weren’t prepared for the workforce.

But the anticipation of a drop in performance has left some legislators with heartburn.

“I could have been doing summer school, I could have been doing tutoring. And I’ve lost two years that I can’t back,” said Rep. Tammie Wilson, a North Pole Republican, of the plight some students might face.

Wilson expressed disappointment that students were going to see lower scores even if they were learning at the same rate. She also wanted to know if the state could just grade students on a harder curve before the new assessments were adopted:

“If we knew right now, even before the new test began, that proficient meant reading at grade level or doing math at grade level — even if it dropped a little bit for my student, knowing that they’re on grade level, which right now you’re saying we don’t know if proficient and grade level are interchangeable — why would we wait another two years for our newest testing when we could change those cut scores tomorrow if we wanted to?”

But it’s not as simple as that, responded Deputy Commissioner Morse. First of all, the state would have to go through a long vetting process to make sure that adjusting the scores was appropriate. By the time that would be complete, schools would already be using the new test.

Morse said even if the state could change the rating scale, it would be like comparing apples to oranges. The problem isn’t with the test: It’s that more is being expected out of students.

“You could take the current assessment, but it’s an assessment of some other standards. And you could say, we’re going to raise the bar, but it’s really technically hard to say, here’s how much harder it should be on this easier test,” said Hanley. It’s technically kind of hard to do that and say it gives you a new, honest picture, because it doesn’t. You just actually told them here’s how you score if we raise the cut score on an easier test than what you’re going to face in the future.”

What students will face in the future has yet to be determined. DEED is pilot testing what’s called the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which about half the states in the country could implement in the next couple of years. But the state is also still considering the more expensive option of creating its own test. DEED would like to have a new test selected by the end of the academic calendar.

“We’re not wedded to anything yet,” said Education Commissioner Mike Hanley, in a phone interview.

Hanley reiterated his deputy’s statement that curving this year’s test as a stop-gap measure wouldn’t work. He also described the currents calls for changing the scoring “ironic,” noting that the legislature had a “significant say in the cut score” and had previously pushed for a gentler grading system out of concern that not enough students were achieving proficiency.

Hanley added that there are things that can be done to lessen the impact of the new scoring system in the interim. Right now, DEED is reaching out to school districts to discuss how to best implement the new standards. And Hanley recommended that parents ask schools what students can do to meet those standards, instead of just relying on their test results this year.

“The flaw is not that we’re going to see a drop in scores,” said Hanley. “The flaw is that we haven’t been totally honest with our students at this point. It’s time to correct that.”

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