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New Assessments Like Smarter Balanced Give Educators "The Facts." What Do They Do With Them?

I have begun a quest to see how expert educators are reacting to the new assessments their students are taking. The new assessments, designed to see if students are on track to be ready for college or careers, have been disconcerting for many educators, parents and the general public.
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I have begun a quest to see how folks whom I consider to be expert educators are reacting to the new assessments their students are taking.

In general the new assessments, designed to see if students are on track to be ready for college or careers, have been disconcerting for many educators, parents and the general public.

The state of Delaware, for example, used to report that roughly 70 percent of its students were proficient in English language arts and math, depending on the grade level and test. But in the spring it administered the new Smarter Balanced assessment and last month reported that only 39 percent of its students could be considered proficient in math and 52 percent in English language arts.

Not a lot of room for complacency in those numbers.

Not that Delaware is alone -- Smarter Balanced was given to students in 15 states, many of which are in the process of reporting similar drops. (The other big new assessments include PARCC, which was given in 11 states and the District of Columbia, and ACT's Aspire.)

So how do expert educators view the new results?

To start my quest I headed out to Selbyville, Delaware.

Selbyville is where Indian River School District central office is housed, in an old school next to a Mountaire poultry processing plant. When the wind shifts the pungent odor of live and dead chicken drifts through any open windows, as do occasional stray feathers.

That poultry plant is one of the many in the area that employ both long-standing residents and immigrants from Mexico and Central America, whose children help make Indian River a very fast-growing district. The district now numbers around 10,000 students, up from 8,000 only a few years ago. Where once the district's population was almost completely white and African American, today about one-third of the district's students are Hispanic -- many of whom don't speak English at home. About 60 percent of the district's students are low-income.

Many districts that have undergone such dramatic shifts in population have seen drops in academic achievement. But Indian River has been on an upswing for the past decade or so. The last time the old Delaware state tests were given, Indian River's elementary schools were at the top of the state, with between 80 and 90 percent of elementary students scoring as proficient; the middle and high schools lagged behind a bit but they, too, were moving forward. And graduation rates are above the rest of the state at 89 percent.

When the Smarter Balanced scores came out, Indian River had dropped dramatically. Its elementary grades were still ahead of the state (45 percent of fifth-graders met math standards compared with 38 percent in the state, for example), but it lagged behind in 11th grade.

How did Superintendent Dr. Susan Bunting talk about it? "We're not nearly where we want to be," she said. But, she added: "Here are the facts, and what are we going to do with them?"

She has welcomed the new assessments, arguing that they will give a much clearer picture about where students are and whether they are on a trajectory to be ready for adulthood. Studies have "looked at our achievement compared to other countries," she said, and if students are going to be successful, "we need to rethink how we're teaching children - the manner and substance."

Assessments like Smarter Balanced are a tool in that rethinking. So, for example, the district adopted a new math curriculum that, she said, would align better with Delaware's college- and career-ready standards. She arranged for a lot of training for both teachers and principals, including offering an ongoing "Math Club" through the year, and she hopes that will help prepare students for the next administration of the test.

"I have a general philosophy that we can always be doing better -- that we'll never be where we want to be."

Within the district, of course, some schools have done better than others. John M. Clayton Elementary has been a bit of a star the past few years.

Serving a large number of students from low-income families, it was recognized last year as a National Blue Ribbon School. Back in 2006, The Education Trust recognized it (then known as Frankford Elementary) as a "Dispelling the Myth" school, which I profiled in It's Being Done (Harvard Education Press, 2007).

Its results on Smarter Balanced were mixed. In third grade, Clayton was way ahead of the state with 75 percent of students meeting standards in math and 59 percent in English Language Arts (ELA). In fifth grade, Clayton was still ahead of the state in ELA with 56 percent proficient, but in math only 25 percent were proficient.

How did the folks at Clayton view those scores?

Dr. CharLynn Hopkins, who was principal through last year before moving to the district office to head up leadership development, said, "We're not happy," though she noted that Clayton did pretty well compared with the state.

The point of any assessment, she added, is that "You need to see where you have to be."

She had known that her fifth-grade math was going to show up weak in the scores, and it did - only 25 percent of students were proficient, compared with 38 percent in the state - and 71 percent at nearby Phillip C. Showell Elementary.

"Fifth grade needed a bomb thrown at them," Hopkins said. "They might as well not have taught math." Before she left she reorganized fifth grade so that there are three teachers either new to the school or to the grade, with the expectation that the new team would be better positioned to help the fifth-graders learn more math.

The new principal of Clayton, Heather Cramer, who had been assistant principal at another school in the district, said: "One thing our district has done well is really preparing our teachers for anticipating the scores, anticipating that this is our baseline and that's where we start. We can only go up from here."

And the teachers seemed to have a similarly dispassionate way of looking at the data. Melissa Grise, a fourth-grade teacher, said that the assessment gives her and her fellow teachers an idea "where the kids need to go." Without that, she said, "there's no point - you're just teaching a book."

But that doesn't mean the teachers think only about how their students will do on the test. "Obviously, that's a part of what goes into teaching," said fellow fourth-grade teacher Nicole O'Donnell, who added, "But there are so many other awesome things in the world that you can add into your curriculum - that can still teach them skills they need but can get them excited and engaged. There's a whole world of things that they need to know."

This set of educators, in other words, seems to see the assessments as information that help them plan to improve instruction.

Seems sensible enough. I'll report on what else I find in other schools in future columns. In the meantime, if you want to read more about how Indian River has managed to improve its academic achievement while growing in numbers and diversity, read my new article in Phi Delta Kappan Magazine: "Teachers Matter. Right. Schools Matter. Right. Districts Matter. Really?"

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