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LTUSD students score above state average: but does that mean anything?

Cory Fisher

Lake Tahoe Unified School District students scored above the statewide average on the 1996-97 standardized test, “Terra Nova.”

“In general, the scores are strong and are a reflection of the hard work and dedication of the teaching and administrative staff at each of our schools,” said Assistant Superintendent Barbara Davis. “It’s safe to say that we’re right where we should be.”

While scoring slightly above the norm in spelling, math and reading, general education students in grades 2 through 10 – roughly 3,700 students – scored a full 18 points higher in the area of writing.

“Our strongest performance is in writing,” said Davis. “Math and spelling were not as strong. With a standardized test, it is expected that 50 percent of students nationwide would be at the 50th percentile. For example, if the majority score 60, then they’ll renorm the score of 60 to 50.”

While seventh-grade scores were lower than surrounding grades, they tended to parallel those statewide, which Davis says could mean the test itself is poorly aligned with the seventh-grade curriculum.

Meyers and Sierra House elementary schools and South Tahoe High School performed above the district average, while Al Tahoe, Tahoe Valley elementary schools and South Tahoe Middle School performed at the average. Bijou Community School performed below average.

Students with limited English proficiency, or LEP, who took the Terra Nova, outscored the subgroup’s state average and scored very strongly on the SABE/2, a standardized test in Spanish.

Although special education students tested slightly lower in their subgroup than the state average, Davis suggested that the scores “may indicate that our district tests more special education students than most districts in the state.”

“It’s very important not to make too many generalizations about scores of small subgroups,” Davis cautioned. “A group of 10 students with an average of 75 percent is very different from a group of 300 with the same average – a larger sample population is a much more reliable score.”

Because the Terra Nova test was only used in this district for the 1996-97 academic year, Davis said there is no published norm guide, or way to compare scores with years past – unless districts choose to convert scores themselves.

Many districts were frustrated to learn that yet another standardized test – the Stanford Achievement Test 9 – has been adopted statewide for next year. Until now, districts throughout California had dozens of standardized tests provided by publishers to choose from. For example, only 200,000 California students took the Terra Nova in 1996-97.

Last year, in anticipation of the required statewide adoption of the SAT 9, many districts opted not to test at all. Cost was one factor for some districts, said Davis, as LTUSD’s purchase of the Terra Nova amounted to roughly $20,000.

Although Davis says having one standardized test for all California students for years to come will help in measuring future progress, SAT 9 scores alone should not be seen as an indicator of quality of instruction at any given school. The SAT 9’s format is said to assess students in a very different way than what students do day-to-day.

“Although these scores will be highly publicized, they are only one piece of information to tell us how we’re doing,” Davis said. “I have no objection to statewide testing, but I would like to see more emphasis placed on a performance-based test where they answer in essay form. That assesses a more complex thinking process than a factual, rote test that is scored on a machine.”

For example, Davis said 40 percent of the SAT 9’s math section requires reading, which means that a student who does well in math but poor in reading would more than likely get a low math score.

While the state does require “multiple measures of assessment” from LTUSD – which will include grades and performance-based test results – the SAT 9 will undoubtedly be the information most widely scrutinized. SAT 9 scores are expected to be published statewide and appear on the Internet.

“This is misdirected energy – the state is trying to make a very complicated thing simple,” said Davis. “I’m concerned that these scores will carry too much weight and that teachers will devote too much time teaching the test format.”

Critics of SAT 9 say it’s also unfair to compare schools unless the demographic profiles are the same.

For example, scores from students with limited English proficiency will not be broken out as before, Davis said, resulting in districts who have many non-English students to score significantly lower.

“Unlike this year – with the exception of special education students – every student who has been enrolled in a California school in the past 12 calendar months must take the SAT 9 in English,” Davis said. “Giving a child with limited English skills a test in English will not provide any meaningful information when it comes to effective instruction. Many of those students will be forced to guess at the answers – we can’t make instructional decisions based on guessing.”

Davis says the emphasis needs to shift from testing to teaching.

“Just because I step on the scale often doesn’t mean I’m going to lose weight,” Davis said. “If we test students often, it doesn’t mean they’ll learn more. What’s important is teaching.

“This kind of testing is not effective in telling us how to make instruction better,” she continued. “If Johnny is having trouble reading, a score on the SAT 9 won’t tell me what pieces he’s missing – and that’s where our energy should be put.”

Nonetheless, Davis says she is confident that LTUSD students will perform as well or better on the SAT 9, which will be administered in April to students in grades 2 through 11.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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