Test scores: Do they matter?
October 16, 2017
The California Department of Education just released the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) results from last spring's testing season. These scores and reports are now a topic of conversation at family dinner tables and in school faculty meetings across town.
No matter what your view on testing is, I bet we could all agree that it's important to look for patterns in student academic performance. If used thoughtfully, scores can guide us sensibly in how we allocate resources to schools to accomplish the Lake Tahoe Unified School District vision of "Creating Learning Opportunities for Every Child to Achieve Success."
That said, I bet we could also agree that test scores do not make children successful! So on the one hand, we know these scores have important value in telling us things we can't know otherwise, such as how to compare scores to get perspective on our programs. But on the other hand, English language arts and mathematics are not the only things taught in our schools. Success is everything from healthy lifestyles and social-emotional strength to communication and analytical skills, persistence and happiness.
Still, I argue it's important to see how our kids are learning, since that's what school is about. Because we have only one middle and high school, we can't compare within the district to any other schools at those levels. Only at the elementary level do these comparisons arise. But are these comparisons useful toward making sure our district creates learning opportunities for every child to achieve?
We should all feel lucky that we can promise each elementary student a warm, encouraging, interesting school experience in South Lake.
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I want to argue that comparing elementary schools is less important than looking at subgroups of students within our entire elementary program. We should all feel lucky that we can promise each elementary student a warm, encouraging, interesting school experience in South Lake.
And we have an amazing quartet of elementary schools:
We have Bijou, our largest elementary school with rich language instruction in both its programs: its primary school program and the Spanish/English dual-immersion program. Bijou's culture is remarkable, and they collaborate closely with, among other programs, Boys and Girls Club and the Family Resource Center, in an academically and culturally-rich environment.
Next, we have the Lake Tahoe Environmental Magnet, known for its impressive academic achievement, cheerful atmosphere, and ambitious science curriculum and lab resources. With the smallest primary-level student population, the magnet is situated in Meyers, a dynamic community with a strong commitment to environmental sciences and conservation.
Then there's the Thunderbirds at Tahoe Valley, a school committed to the arts and the heart, with integrated music and art programs, evident by the student work on the walls, music spilling out of the MPR, and dynamic staff leading children through academically-charged and motivating curriculum. Watch students enter school in the morning and you can see Tahoe Valley is a special place.
Finally, there's Sierra House, with its theme of outdoor sports, health and wellness. Its children participate in the dynamic Garden Program, a busy program that integrates sustainable agriculture, healthy eating, hands-on science experiences that teachers integrate in their literacy, social studies, and math curricula. Check out Sierra House's outstanding physical education program, too.
So do test scores even matter?
I took a look at the data reported by the CDE. One particular subgroup is struggling to achieve in ELA and math on the CAASPP in our district: English learners. The CDE has even called us out for this in the past.
To explore this more, I put all the students from all four elementary schools together and looked at English Learners versus English Only performance.
"English Learners" are a specific group of students in legal terms. These are students whose parents marked that they speak a language other than English at home and they demonstrated the need for English instruction in order to achieve in school. Ideally, ELs learn English and get reclassified as Fluent English Proficient. "English Only" students are those who only speak English at home (so the language of the test and home are the same).
Looking at the data, there are clear patterns.
I see that our EO students in Grades 3, 4 and 5 are at or above the state's percentage of English Only students who are passing the test (technically this is, "Percentage Standard Met and Above").
Also, ELs are exceeding the state's English Learners in "Percentage Standard Met and Above" in Grade 3. But EL performance falls off in grades 4 and 5. This pattern is concerning, even across the state.
I would argue that we need to dig in here. Note that only three of our schools have EL groups large enough to report: Bijou, Tahoe Valley, and Sierra House. We could be focusing our resources on supporting these school and students to get what they need to do the difficult task of teaching and learning in a language other than what the learner uses outside school.
Next, we need to give kids time to learn. Numerous studies show that students spent about a fifth of their time in school (e.g., Kauchak & Eggen, 2017). Whether a student speaks English at home and learns in Spanish or vice versa, it is no small task to (a) learn the 3 R's in school and (b) learn the 3R's in another language simultaneously. Ask anyone who's done it.
So what can we do?
We all can commit to "Creating Learning Opportunities for Every Child to Achieve Success." By supporting the unique needs of ELs early in their school careers, we increase the number of reclassified students and reduce the need for remedial English and math in higher levels, including college.
LTUSD School Board: Let's take the issue up with energy and determination to get teachers what they are asking for: more collaboration time to develop their toolkits in instructing ELs. Also, summer and extended programs could help enormously in providing more experience in the language of school.
Lake Tahoe Education Fund, Tahoe Community Women's Fund, and other funders: Let's prioritize education grant money to support those organizations who address the needs of ELs and language-rich experiences for all our students.
Families of all our students: Let's keep using our diverse languages as a point of pride and engagement for our schools. Let's remember there's a lot more to success than math and ELA scores. Let's keep up the incredible programs across the district, all the while being determined to support success for all students. Get involved. Parent involvement matters.
Annie Davidson, Ed.D., is the parent of two young children in the Lake Tahoe Unified School District. Her work in education has spanned the elementary classroom, testing industry and higher education. She volunteers as much as she can. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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