The Journal Register (Medina, NY)

September 16, 2013

Quick study

New state tests and Common Core bringing a lot of rapid changes

BY JOE OLENICK joe.olenick@journal-register.com
Medina Journal-Register

Medina Journal-Register — A new school year in underway. And with it comes some big changes to how students are challenged and how their achievements are measured.

Last month, state officials released test results for the 2012-13 school year, the first exams under the new Common Core Learning Standards that were adopted by the state Board of Regents in 2010.

The Common Core standards are supposed to give a more accurate reflection of students’ progress toward college and career readiness, state officials have said. The standards are based on a more narrowly focused curriculum, favoring depth instead of covering a wider range of topics and skills.

And that includes tougher ELA and math tests.

Like many schools across the state, Eastern Niagara County schools didn’t fare well in this year’s statewide math and English language arts exams for third- through eighth-graders. Scores plummeted everywhere.

But the low scores were something Commissioner John King said he expected to happen. Schools have been encouraged to look at the tests as a starting point, a new baseline from which state education hopes a higher-quality of student achievement grows.

”The message they sent out to schools was ‘don’t panic,’ “ said Lockport City School Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley. “‘It’s a new standard, don’t compare it with previous years.’ ”

At some point over the next couple of weeks parents will start receiving individual score reports from those state tests. School district officials are preparing for the questions they’ll receive.

”We’ll be fielding calls... you might be fielding some calls,” Sean Croft, Starpoint’s assistant superintendent of instruction, assessment and staff development, told the Board of Education on Monday. “You may hear from a parent who’ll say my kid has gotten a mid-level 3 for the past few years, now they’re a level 2. What’s going on?”

The reasoning for the Common Core and the harder tests was simply that Albany believes New York graduates aren’t ready for college or the workforce. Even though the state graduation rate was 74 percent, a Harvard study declared that only 35 percent of New York high school graduates are college or workforce ready. “Ready” means scoring a 75 or higher on the 11th-grade English Regents exam and 80 or above on the integrated math Regents test.

About 50 percent of those who enter a two-year college need to take some kind of remedial course, Croft said. That number drops to 10 percent when talking about students who enter a four-year school and need a remedial course.

In addition to making the tests more difficult, how the assessments were scored changed as well. For example, in 2012, third-graders who took the state mathematics test and were given a raw score of 684 (with the highest being 770) were said to have scored at level 3 or met the state standard. The 684 would have landed the student in the 40th percentile when compared to their peers across the state.

Now, a raw score of 293 (with the highest being 394) means a student will score a level 2 or below the state standard. But that student will also be in the 40th percentile. For the third-grade math exam, a level 3 student would land in the 70th percentile.

”It is now much more difficult to achieve those passing (level 3) scores,” Croft said.

The raw scores and corresponding levels are different with each test and grade level. But all of them have changed, increasing the threshold a student will have to score in order to reach a level 3. And it also increases the range of raw scores that are level 1 and level 2, something that might trouble parents of students who were borderline level 2s and so close to a level 3 score. Or parents of kids whose scores have been increasing in percentile but end up staying or dropping a level under the new system.

“These children are technically not regressing,” Croft said. “It’s like if you didn’t lose any weight, you stayed at the same weight but when you stepped on a scale, it made you look like you were gaining weight.”

In the past, a student who receives a level 2 score would be required to receive academic intervention services from their school. On paper it seems lower scores for districts would mean an increase in AIS, but Albany is allowing districts a little leeway and soften up the cutoff, Croft said.

”Otherwise we’d be throwing, in some cases, over 50 percent of a grade level in remediation,” he said.

In some districts, there probably won’t be an increase. Bradley said Lockport isn’t expecting an increase in students who need AIS. But the district will know for sure this week when districts officials meet.

Also coming soon, is information from the state that will tell schools what content areas students are struggling in on the tests. Having an idea what topics students are having a hard time with would help schools address those areas, Croft said.

Of course, schools and teachers want that information sooner, he added.

For this school year, teachers have been preparing lesson plans that will align with the Common Core standards. Some of those changes will include for example, reading standards that will involve more than picking answers from the text. Students will need to discern the mood and tone of certain stories, not just key words.

Reading and writing will be more integrated into other subject areas, as well, so students will be writing about social studies and science as part of their English curriculum. Math problems won’t always be the usual straightforward problem, they could be embedded in longer word problems.

”We’re not going to be teaching to the test, because we know that doesn’t work,” Croft said. “We’re teaching to the skills.”

And of course, there’s always the new Annual Professional Performance Review for teachers and principals. Part of the APPR scoring involves how students fare on state ELA and math tests.

However, state officials have said they will be using a special method to compare student achievement have grown from the previous year, known as a teacher’s growth score. That will include comparing students with similar academic history, background and characteristics.

CHANGES Aside from the difficulty of state tests, how the assessments are scored has also changed For example, the grade 3 mathematics exam: • 2012: A raw score of 684 (highest being 770) meant a student scored a level 3 or met the state standard and landed in the 40th percentile • 2013: A raw score of 293 (highest now being 394) means a student will score a level 2 or below state standards, but while remaining in the 40th percentile

Contact reporter Joe Olenick at 716-439-9222, ext. 6241 or follow him on Twitter @joeolenick.