Polk testing scores not what they seem

Published 5:52 pm Monday, November 25, 2013

For years, Polk County Schools staff felt awash with pride as test scores proclaimed 90 percent or more of students were scoring proficient test scores, but now the results seem less beaming and administration wants teachers, students and especially parents to understand why.

Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Aaron Greene said the system has experienced a 15–20 percent drop in the percentage of students scoring proficient on the 2012-13 assessments.

“The quality experience that students in Polk County have gotten has not changed, but if you just looked at these numbers alone, you would ask what happened to our schools?” Greene said. “It’s not that from 2011-2013 our schools got horrible and all of this happened, instead the definition of passing changed.”

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By comparison to other school systems in the state, Polk County Schools scored in the Top 10 systems on 13 of the 17 segments. In a 14th section the system placed 12th in the state.

Polk County Schools’ students obtained the No. 1 passing rate in the state for Math 1, also known as Algebra 1, with 64.7 percent of students tested earning a proficient score. The system also marked the fifth highest proficiency rating for fifth grade math.

“Our students are passing these assessments at a rate that is much higher than the 115 systems in North Carolina … and it’s across the board on almost every assessment that we have,” said Polk County Technology Director Dave Scherping.

Scherping said while Polk County remains in relatively the same position statewide as it has for the last 15-20 years, but parents are seeing dramatically different numbers because of the state changes.

“We need to make sure people understand what has changed this year,” Scherping said. “No matter which score area you are talking about, we are scoring significantly above the state average.”

In October, the state board set up new rules on what passing means on these state tests.

Over the past 20 years, passing proficiency meant a student had the skills he or she needed to do well when they moved on to the next grade.

Scherping said the system would never hit 100 percent proficiency because every school system has a segment of students with disabilities that cannot work on the same level as their age group.

In the past, systems were allowed to use an alternate assessment to make sure those students were making progress. Starting this year, students with disabilities are tested against the same standards as all other students on their grade or age level. Scherping said when you look at the passing rates statewide, most all the systems dropped from an 80-90 percent passing rate to one percent for students with disabilities.

The definition of proficiency has changed across the board as well.

“This year they have redefined what proficiency means,” Scherping said. “Students must now be on track to be able to do college level classwork – so as a third grader they have to be showing enough progress for the state to feel they will do well as a college student.”

How do you determine whether or not a third grader is on track to be a proficient student at the college level? That is something Polk County Schools and its staff members are still trying to determine.

In the English Language Arts test or reading test – there is no longer the detailed text reading where a student would read a short story and be asked questions related directly to the content in that story, Scherping said. Now, tests are based on more informational text reading, which can be more technical. Questions are now seeking the students’ interpretation of what is read instead of the student being able to specifically answer the question by picking out a detail in the reading.

Greene said this means students have to analyze what they are reading more carefully and making inferences from that reading.
On the math tests they are asked to do more than basic computation sections. Students again need to take multiple steps and use the information provided to arrive at an answer.

Greene said, for example, a student might be asked to take three power bills and advise the customer on changes they could make that would lower their power bill.

He said this stems from an increased focus on critical thinking, which he said isn’t a bad thing but in the first year is a dramatic shift from the previous format of tests.

“We would not argue that we need to raise the level if we are going to truly prepare students for the world they are going into, but some would argue the shift was too dramatic,” Greene said.

Greene said there are some areas the system sees an obvious concern.

In biology only 45.3 percent of students tested scored proficiently.

“We know that our students do come out of those classrooms with a good feeling and an interest in science,” Greene said. “Students feel that they are doing well but we are missing something in this classroom. We’re going to have to determine what the curricular alignment is. This is not necessarily a quality of teacher issue – we need to assess what we’re doing to meet the changes in curriculum and go from there.”

The same issue is showing up in eighth grade science and eighth grade math where students are combining courses such as eighth-grade science and high school level Earth Science to free up a course in high school.

“The argument from us as a district, is that we believe it is better for our students to free up that space in their high school course work to take more science and do better on a college entrance exam than to get a higher score on an eighth-grade level science exam,” Greene explained.

Scherping said some parents might get their students’ scores and see a proficiency rating much lower than last year. This change could put them on alert, but he said parents should not be concerned that their students will be held back.

“I don’t think because they’ve changed the level of proficiency that they are not ready for sixth grade, for example. This is about whether or not they are progressing in a way that prepares them for college,” Greene said.

Scherping and Greene said it is important for parents and teachers to understand there will be transition pains as everyone adjusts to the new scoring method.

“It is going to reflect on our teachers to someone who doesn’t understand this method but those areas are done on purpose by the district,” Greene said. “Teachers are going to have to hang their hat on the growth these students experienced while they were in these classes not necessarily the exact number they received under these new testing models,” Greene said.

To read more about the testing scores, visit inside.polkschools.org/accountability.