Oxford Hills School District struggles with ever changing testing

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PARIS — While School Administrative District 17 students scored below the state average for last spring’s Smarter Balance Assessment test in all three subject areas, administrators aren’t content with the results and have plans in place to help students.

Graph courtesy of SAD 17 SAD 17's Smarter Balanced Assessment scores came in below the state average.
Graph courtesy of SAD 17
SAD 17’s Smarter Balanced Assessment scores came in below the state average.

Melanie Ellsworth, the No Child Left Behind coordinator and district literacy coach, shared the results with the SAD 17 Board of Directors last week. From Director of Curriculum Heather Manchester’s office on Tuesday, the two women said the tests were issued between March and May and included grades three to 12.

In the English, language arts and literacy portion, students scored between 15 and 38 points below the state average, with grade five posting the lowest score. For math, SAD 17 students came in between 14 and 28 points below the state average. Grades five and eight both tied for lowest score in that area.

Manchester and Ellsworth wondered if the test hadn’t been so long and if the younger students were more familiar with typing – as it was all done on the computer differing from previous pencil and paper tests – if there might have been some better results. The same goes with students who took the test in March – due to computer lab availability – as to those who took it in May and had two more months of instruction time.

The difficulty with Smarter Balanced Assessment is that the test was only used for one year and piloted two years ago, so it’s hard to quantify the results, the women said.

“That is the big challenge and I actually have called the state folks and have asked them. There isn’t really a way to go year to year,” Ellsworth said, noting they’re different standards from the previous New England Common Assessment Program test. “So it really just needs to stand alone and the … best we can do is compare it to the state mean and see what our relative strengths and weaknesses are.”

Graph courtesy of SAD 17 SAD 17's Smarter Balanced Assessment scores came in below the state average.
Graph courtesy of SAD 17
SAD 17’s Smarter Balanced Assessment scores came in below the state average.

Many of the high school students opted out of taking these standardized tests for AP exams and the SATs last spring since they all were issued around the same time, they said.

“It was a really tough year to be a junior in the month of May,” Manchester said, laughing.

All kidding aside, the women believe if more of the district’s college-bound students had taken the Smarted Balanced Assessments, the scores would have been higher. SAT scores improved between 34 and 56 points over the last year but that’s because only 28 percent of the students – mostly college bound – took the SATs. The previous year that test was mandatory.

In the area of science, district scores were much closer to the state average, though these tests weren’t part of the Smarted Balanced Assessment. These were given to students in grades five, eight and 11 using pencil and paper, and the scores were only four and five points behind the state.

But even with some good news for the district, there is room for improvement.

“We, in the long term, have often been below the state average. It wasn’t a surprise [but] it wasn’t something we were content to sit with,” Ellsworth said.

Manchester agreed with her colleague and said there’s a major factor that comes into play with the district’s historically lower test scores.

Graph courtesy of SAD 17 Students in SAD 17 had higher SAT scores this year over the previous year, but only 28 percent of students took the test.
Graph courtesy of SAD 17
Students in SAD 17 had higher SAT scores this year over the previous year, but only 28 percent of students took the test.

“We do have a high free and reduced lunch rate,” she said, noting districtwide it hovers between 60 and 65 percent of all students. “We are working with students coming from families that struggle.”

But Manchester said she isn’t making excuses.

“I think what is important is we have a lot of things in place in the district in trying to move our students to be stronger students,” she said.

This includes state funds to expand professional development in grades seven through 12 for the mandated proficiency-based diploma program, launching new math pilot programs in kindergarten through grade eight, creating a strong literacy and language component in preschool, which taps into a $1.2 million grant over three years, implementing a new writing curriculum for students in kindergarten and eighth grade – Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Writing – and focusing on the district’s strategic plan.

The leadership team at each school is examining the student body’s strengths and weaknesses and implementing a school-wide plan to improve achievement, along with looking at individual student needs.

Manchester noted the district took two years building up to Smarter Balanced Assessment and people “can’t underestimate the human resources” it took – both administratively and in the classroom – to prepare.

But legislation enacted in June terminated the state’s Department of Education’s relationship with Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium. Every district in the state will find out sometime this month what test will be used this year. This is another frustration for the team.

Graph courtesy of SAD 17 SAD 17 students came in just below the state average for science testing.
Graph courtesy of SAD 17
SAD 17 students came in just below the state average for science testing.

“The test score is not the only thing about the student. It is just one piece of data,” Manchester said. “When that game changes year to year, it’s hard to see that data to effectively improve what we’re doing.”

Manchester and Ellsworth are currently examining gender differences and schools’ specific strengths and needs as a result of the Smarter Balanced Assessment. But it really is a balancing act, they say.

“We’re digging back into this data into a test we will never see again. We’re just trying to weigh out what do we spend the most time on and what is most useful for us,” Ellsworth said.

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