Test Scores: Still Dazed & Confused

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Payson schools have now officially plunged into the world of new testing methods with the first round of assessment scores — with results officials say aren’t as bad as they look.

Payson Unified School District (PUSD) Director of Student Achievement Brenda Case presented the results to the school board at its meeting on Monday, Jan. 13. She showed results from two rounds of tests in reading and math given at the start of the school year and then in December. The testing is designed to show how much students have learned and mimics the tests slated to replace the Arizona Instrument to Measure Stan­dards (AIMS).

“It’s all about growth,” said Case of the analysis.

She also said these tests reflect the shift in education: The tests measuring learning rather than teaching — and help teachers stay on track.

The new Arizona Standards for College and Career Readi­ness requires each grade level to master certain concepts by a certain age. The three-times-a-year STAR tests help the teachers and students stay on target by identifying weak points or strengths in the learning process.

The STAR Enterprise test uses benchmarks as units of measure, based on what students are expected to know from the curriculum geared to the AIMS tests, said a representative from the STAR testing company.

However, by next year the AIMS test will be replaced by a test based on the new standards, said Case.

At first glance, the results seem progressively abysmal, with high percentage gains in kindergarten and first grade that flat-line in fifth grade and middle school.

But Wayne Gorry, the student achievement teacher (SAT) for Rim Country Middle School, said the complex STAR tests capture dynamic change — not simple mastery.

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Brenda Case, PUSD director of student achievement

The STAR tests are all done on the computer. Unlike paper and pencil tests where everyone answers the same 25 questions at the end of the year, the STAR test interactively selects questions that determine the limits of a student’s knowledge.

As the students answer questions on the computer, the test analyzes the child’s level of understanding and uses that to pick the next question. If a student fails to understand a core subject, the test will drop the difficulty of the next question. If a child answers tougher questions, the test will ask harder questions.

Sometimes a child will score beyond what the benchmarks expect, sometimes under or right at benchmark.

“I heard of one student who came to their teacher and said, “I didn’t do so well on the (math) test because it kept asking me about algorithms and I don’t know anything about algorithms,” said Gorry.

He said that contrary to what the student believed, she had done extremely well on the basic questions and the test wanted to see how much she really knew.

Gorry said in essence, this test customizes the questions to the skills of the students.

Even then, students can misunderstand the purpose of the test.

At RCMS, students sabotaged their answers during December testing because they confused two different tests.

“Both tests were called the STAR reading test,” said Gorry.

The STAR reading test the students used to take, were part of the AR reading program at the middle school.

That test determined a middle school student’s ability to read complex vocabulary. Doing well on that reading test meant students would have to read “boring” books with a great vocabulary, but of little interest to sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students.

That included books like “War and Peace” and “Pride and Prejudice,” with content more complex than that age group would understand. So some students deliberately did poorly on the new STAR test in the mistaken belief they would have to change reading groups if they did well, said Gorry.

Both Gorry and Case said more than 200 students were retested after the winter break after teachers explained the difference between the two tests. By Jan. 23, the new scores jumped 2 to 3 percent.

The students at Julia Randall Elementary (JRE) also confused the two tests. JRE staff said they have retested their students as well, but will not see final scores until the end of January. Initial results, however, also show an improvement in scores, said JRE staff.

From an outsider’s perspective, the scores might make people wonder if PUSD students learn less over time. Instead, the STAR tests reflect how students must gain more and more knowledge as they progress, said both Case and Gorry.

So in kindergarten, students need to master a very limited number of concepts to get a high score. But the number of concepts increases rapidly with each grade, making it much harder for an eighth-grader to rack up a big percentage change in the course of the year.

“If you look nationwide, that is a consistent pattern,” Gorry said of the disparity in the rate of change as the grade levels increase. “When a student comes into first grade, they have a tremendous growth level. You see a lot of movement in the early grades.”

Case agreed with Gorry.

She said the rate of growth of the kindergartners and first grade students would most likely slow down by the end of the year because the topics taught are more demanding and tougher to grasp.

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