With statewide test results in transition, this year more than ever local school districts are looking at them as a small piece of a bigger picture.
Last spring, about one-third of students statewide field-tested the new Smarter Balanced tests, which will replace the Measurements of Student Progress and High School Proficiency Exams and align with the new Common Core State Standards used in classrooms.
No results were provided from those field tests, and that means there were plenty of holes in the testing data released Wednesday, Aug. 27, by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
In Whatcom County, the Smarter Balanced tests were used for some students in Bellingham, Ferndale, Lynden, Meridian and Nooksack Valley school districts. Blaine and Mount Baker districts stuck with the old tests, but teachers still worked on teaching to the upcoming standards.
"We knew going into last year that our teachers would be instructing a new set of standards, and as such the assessments that had been crafted to measure the prior standards would inherently present some limitations for informing future work," Blaine Superintendent Ron Spanjer wrote in an email.
Understanding student progress with the limited data has been challenging for districts that took part in field tests. With some grades and schools taking the new test, it can be harder to track the performance of different groups and different populations.
"In many ways, it really does come down to trying to compare apples to oranges," wrote Scott Brittain, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in Ferndale.
In spring 2015, students will take the new Smarter Balanced test in math and English language arts. Fifth- and eighth-graders will continue to take the old MSP in science. High school students will continue to have to pass an end-of-course test in either algebra or geometry, as well as in biology, and juniors will take tests in math and language arts that won't count for graduation.
Here's a brief breakdown of how local districts did on last spring's tests and how the new Smarter Balanced tests were applied in each district:
Bellingham field-tested the Smarter Balanced tests for its high school students, who also took the High School Proficiency and End-of-Course exams required for graduation. In spring 2014, 10th-graders at Sehome and Bellingham and 11th-graders at Squalicum took the new English language arts test. At Options High School, 11th-graders took the new math test.
That meant the district still had complete results for its students. As far as improvements go, sixth-grade math was up, as was math and science in fifth grade. Dips in third-grade test scores were consistent with statewide averages
"Overall, Bellingham Public Schools' scores are consistent with the last few years, and they are on par or better than the state test scores," said Mike Copland, deputy superintendent of teaching and learning. "We can find specific cases were scores are up, down or flat, but overall, we're holding steady from last year. About 75 percent of students met standards this past spring."
The biggest reason for field-testing the Smarter Balanced tests was to prepare students for the assessments.
"They were able to take the tests and do the work without risk," he said. "By taking these tests in the spring, they can reflect on their comfort with materials, tasks, etc."
Taking the test also helped prepare students and staff for the format of the computer-based tests.
Blaine didn't take part in the field testing, but it did encourage teachers to focus on new standards to prepare students for the transition.
"This data is certainly important but it is one piece of a much bigger picture of student learning," said Stacy Thomas, executive director of teaching and learning at Blaine. "The (2013-14) MSP data in particular poses some challenges as it is the last year of MSP testing and we are working very hard to transition to a whole new set of standards and assessment."
Districtwide, reading was up in grades six and eight and down in seven and 10. Math was up in grades four and six, writing was up in grades four and seven, and science was up in grade four.
The points of interest Thomas noticed were the reading gains, the good performance of the district's high school students, and the work the district has done to improve math scores, including a partnership with the University of Washington Mathematics Education Project.
Central and Custer elementary schools, Horizon and Vista middle schools and Ferndale High School field tested the new Smarter Balanced assessments.
"This proved to be a very worthwhile experience," said Scott Brittain, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. "It gave our teachers firsthand knowledge about the expectations of the new test that will help them get in front of the change and better prepare students for what is coming."
The downside of the field tests is that without scores, it's harder to compare district results to last year's.
Brittain saw both bright spots and challenges in the scores Ferndale received. He's happy about student gains in science and math and said the district has been focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math programs. Reading took small dips, and writing was down.
"Test scores are important, but they are only one piece of a bigger picture that includes developing students' strengths in various areas," Brittain said. "As a school district, we have chosen not to put all our eggs into the reading, writing, math, and science baskets. We believe in the importance of music and the arts, world languages and career and technical education programs, athletics and other extracurricular activities."
Lynden schools extensively tested Smarter Balanced, with only the school's parent partnership program Lynden Academy taking the old tests and some high school students taking tests required for graduation.
That means that the results people see on the OSPI website represent only the parent partnership students, not the entire district, said Elizabeth Hamming, Lynden's director of teaching and learning. Those results included some pretty dramatic drops in math and writing for the younger grades. She called OSPI to see if they could put a note on their results about the field testing, but she doesn't think it will happen.
With two sets of test going on at once, last year was a challenging one for the district. But it was worth it to learn just how time- and computer-intensive the tests were.
"I think our lessons learned were the tutorial time before test is really important so students have time to practice on what the test looks like," she said.
Meridian School District opted to use the Smarter Balanced test for middle school students to get a feel for the tests: how long they take, how much typing and writing is needed and just to get experience with the test in general.
The district still got results for its elementary and high school students from the old tests. Those results showed math and reading improvements in grades three and five, writing up in 10th grade and science up in eighth grade. End-of-Course exams were up for all but geometry.
"We wanted to see those numbers so we could have consistency, but at the same time we wanted to prepare our teachers and students," said David Forsythe, Meridian's assistant superintendent.
Meridian's math scores have outpaced the state, though reading lags behind. The district is addressing that with professional development and new literacy instructional materials for elementary school that will align with the new standards.
Mount Baker stayed with the old tests to get one last look at how students were doing.
"Our results were mixed," Superintendent Charles Burleigh said. "There were areas of strength and areas where we would like to see more progress. One of the reasons we wanted to take the MSP last spring instead of the Smarter Balanced pilot test was so we would get another year of student data to continue our improvement work."
The district saw increases for writing success, as well as middle school reading and fifth- and sixth-grade math. Mount Baker mirrored the state trend with a drop in students passing the geometry End-of-Course exam.
"This is an important exam for our students, and we will be working to understand the issues and work to increase student success," Burleigh said.
Nooksack participated in the Smarter Balanced field tests for third through eighth grade and 11th grade in English language arts and mathematics.
"That's where we're heading," Assistant Superintendent Cindy Stockwell said of Smarter Balanced. "Really, MSP scores at this point are not helpful because we're headed into a totally different set of standards and new assessment systems."
The pilot gave students a chance to get experience with the test and the technology, and it gave administrators exposure to the testing process.
"We wanted to be prepared and one way to do that is to experience the field test," Stockwell said. "The MSP was going to be the last year. We have been fully implementing Common Core standards, so it made it a lot more supportive for teachers not to have to think about two different sets of standards during the year."
Fifth- and eighth-graders took the science MSP, as this test will remain in place for the next few years, and fifth-graders held steady while eighth-graders improved over last year.
Results for high school reading and writing were similar to last year, as were End-of-Course exams.
To view scores for local districts and schools, go online to reportcard.ospi.k12.wa.us. Near the top left of the page, there is a drop-down list that starts with Washington State; scroll down to select your district and hit "Go." Once the page reloads, use the drop-down menu to look at individual schools in the district.