Testing issues and Lockwood Schools’ academic achievement

by Tobin Novasio-Lockwood Schools Superintendent

At the end of December there was a lot of information in the media regarding the Office of Public Education releasing the results of Montana’s first Smarter Balanced (SBAC) assessment and the transition in Washington DC from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). I wanted to give you my take from the local perspective and share our district’s success.

Montana educators anticipated many of the issues with the new tests that are now being brought to light. Here at Lockwood, we opted out of the SBAC test immediately when given the option by OPI. Because of our size and the number of computer labs, we started testing in the middle school at the beginning of the testing window and immediately ran into many technical glitches and delays. Due to these constant delays, we knew that our scores really weren’t valid. Imagine how difficult it is to get middle school students take a test seriously when it is delayed four or five times! We also had concerns that we would not get the scores in a timely manner – concerns that were validated when the scores that were promised in July did not get released to districts until the end of December.

This delay illustrates the major flaw in the current yearly testing model that the federal government has prescribed in the past as part of NCLB: Students take the test in the spring of one year but educators do not get the results until the next school year. Therefore, there is no way that these results can be used to inform educational decisions in a timely manner. This is one of the main issues that I hope we as a state can address as we transition from the No Child Left Behind era into the new Every Student Succeeds Act that was made law last month.

If schools are going to have to take the time to test our students, we should be guaranteed useful results that can affect instruction in a time frame that benefits our students.

One of the frustrations with the SBAC process and failure is that there are already assessment tools that are widely used and meet the needs of schools. Lockwood is one of many districts in the area that uses the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test that was developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). With the MAP test, student scores are available as soon as they finish the test and both classroom and school-wide data is available when we close our testing windows. This test is used for many purposes, starting at placing new students in the right classes. Our teachers pore over these numbers to assess if our programs are working, identify school or grade level weaknesses, and even to guide decisions on when certain topics should be taught during the academic year. In short, the testing provides us with data so that we can make better and timelier decisions maximizing your student’s learning. Parents get reports based on the MAP test detailing their student’s progress three times a year along with report cards.

I want to share our district’s “report card” from these same assessments for the last academic year. NWEA recently set new norms for the MAP test based on the scores of over 35 million students during the previous three years. In this process, they added several new measurements they share with schools; I want to focus on the comparative growth measurement called “School Conditional Growth Percentile.” This score gives the district a measurement of how much our students have grown during the selected time as compared to other schools around the nation. When looking at these scores, I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am of the hard work put in by our students, their parents and our staff!

In the last full school year, from the fall of 2014 to the spring of 2015, all but two of our grade levels scored above the 50 percentile in reading growth. The majority of our grade levels (6 out of 9) scored above the 80th percentile and two grades (4th and 5th) scored at the 99th percentile. Our math scores were even stronger! All grade levels scored in the top third of the nation, with the same number of classes (6 out of 9) scoring above the 90th percentile and 4th and 5th grade again maxing out at the 99th percentile. The Language Usage test is only given in grades third and up. In this area, our classes averaged above the 90th percentile.

I want to compare these results to the academic goals that our school board has set. Two of the foci that they set are: High Achievement for Each Student, and Ensuring that All Students Have the Opportunity to Learn What is Expected. These goals are why I have chosen to focus on this comparative growth measurement and one of the reasons why the No Child Left Behind law was flawed.

In Lockwood, we believe that all students have the right to the best education possible. Under NCLB, only the “failing” students were focused on; there was no tool to measure the growth of students. It was “black or white” —  either a child was proficient, or they were failing. Our mindset at Lockwood is focused on academic growth. A struggling child can make great strides and still fall short of what is considered proficient; should we not celebrate this growth and work? Most gifted children have far exceeded the grade level standards, should they just be allowed to rest on their academic laurels and no continue to be challenged? Under NCLB, there was no incentive for schools to devote resources for these highest achieving students.

Lockwood Schools’ trustees have set goals for our district that emphasize maximum educational growth for each student on an individualized basis. Our staff has done a superior job of working with students and parents to achieve this growth and will continue to do so regardless of what happens at the state or federal level. One can only hope that under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, Montana can develop a common sense testing approach that is timely and gives teachers the opportunity to use the data to drive instruction to focus on every student’s needs and their individual success!

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