A top teacher talks about testing
Tacoma Public Schools and the Puyallup School District set the bar high for their 2018 state test results.
Perhaps too high.
In Tacoma, statewide test results released over the summer show that in some cases more than half of its students are not meeting state standards in English language arts (ELA), math or science.
“When we set out to make those goals, we certainly intended by every right and mean to meet those goals,” said Marie Verhaar, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for Tacoma Public Schools. “I won’t say they were too high. I won’t say we should have reconsidered, because having goals pushes us harder. ... We wish we could have gotten there.”
Puyallup students also fell short of some district goals.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever be satisfied,” said Almai Malit, director of instructional leadership for assessment and accountability for the Puyallup School District. “We want to see 100 percent. Realistically, we don’t know. We shoot to something close to that.”
While test scores are only one way to measure student success, they can show school officials how they’re doing as a district, both internally and statewide, and help them set future goals.
This is the fourth year that Smarter Balanced ELA and math assessments have been administered across the state for grades three through eight. Grade 10 was tested for the first time last year. Grades three, eight and 11 were tested in science for the first time last year.
Tacoma’s scores are on par with what they’ve been in the past. The percentage of students meeting state standards has predominantly landed in the 40-to-50 percent range since 2015.
The district’s benchmark goals reflect the percentage of students the district hoped would either be meeting standards or exceeding them for third, fifth and eighth grades. Only 10th grade ELA exceeded those goals.
“Am I going to tell you we’re celebrating the scores? No, the scores are relatively flat,” Verhaar said. “Are we satisfied with them? Absolutely not. Would we be satisfied if they were 80 percent? We’d be thrilled that 30 percent more of our children were meeting standard, but we wouldn’t be satisfied because it’s not 100 (percent).”
Here is a look the percentage of students meeting standard versus the district goal for 2018:
ELA — Goal: 59 percent. Result: 50 percent.
Math — Goal: 63 percent. Result: 49 percent.
ELA — Goal: 65 percent. Result: 57 percent.
Math — Goal: 59 percent. Result: 43 percent.
ELA — Goal: 62 percent. Result: 48 percent.
Math — Goal: 56 percent. Result: 32 percent.
ELA — Goal: 46 percent. Result: 63 percent.
Math — Goal: 36 percent. Result: 29 percent
Unlike Tacoma, Puyallup doesn’t set goals for each individual content area. Instead, district officials focus their assessment goals on third-grade literacy and eighth-grade high school readiness in all content areas.
For third grade, the district’s goal was for 60 percent of students to meet standard on only the ELA Smarter Balanced Assessment by 2018. The district reached the goal at 61 percent.
For eighth grade, the goal was that 70 percent of students meet standards this year in the three content areas (math, ELA and science.) Only 41 percent did.
Puyallup typically sees a higher percentage of students meeting standards than Tacoma in all content areas, with scores slightly above the state average.
“Are we satisfied? There’s some celebration, and there are some think-abouts, just like any other year,” Malit said.
GAINS IN READING, WRITING
In some cases, there’s cause for celebration.
Pierce County students are showing incremental improvements in reading and writing. Tacoma is especially proud of ELA test results of elementary students. Out of 35 elementary schools, 22 showed increased ELA scores between 2017 and 2018, with fourth graders meeting standard showing a jump of 12 points from 2015 (42 percent) to 2018 (54.3 percent).
Puyallup saw a similar theme with elementary students, including a 13 percent gain for third graders meeting standard from 2015 (47.3 percent) to 2018 (60.9 percent).
Districts also track improvements by cohort, or the same group of students from year to year. In that regard, ELA test scores are steadily increasing for both districts.
“The biggest celebration we probably have, if I was to look at all three content areas being assessed, would be our English language arts,” Malit said.
Verhaar said Tacoma doesn’t measure success by one assessment. It also looks at high school credits obtained, participation in extracurricular activities and graduation rates — which are at an all-time high for the district at 86.1 percent in 2017.
“I always say to families who ask me: There’s so much more that goes into the quality of a Whole Child education than one score,” Verhaar said. “And I encourage families to find out what else is happening. Find out what else is offered at that school.”
Specific schools and classrooms have seen growth.
Diana Fitzgerald, a fifth grade teacher at Tacoma’s Mann Elementary School, has seen the highest student growth in test scores for the past two years. Every day, she assigns a reading and math “exit task” to measure the skills taught in class and gives immediate corrective feedback.
“I’m confident where they are every day and they’re getting exactly what they need,” Fitzgerald said. “The results I’m getting from my students are not a result of district curriculum, district programs. It’s individual teachers, and the power of teachers and knowing their students every single day.”
Tacoma and Puyallup credit their gains to programs that identify and intervene with students not meeting standards, and programs that teach students how to process emotions, foster relationships and set individual goals.
Still, to meet their assessment goals, there’s still a long way to go.
STRUGGLES IN MATH, SCIENCE
ELA might be in good shape, but math and science? Not so much.
“We have quite a bit to go math-wise, but that’s also a statewide and national trend as far as mathematics is concerned,” Malit said.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Washington was one of 41 states that did not have a significant change in its test scores since 2015.
Tacoma and Puyallup are seeing stagnant math scores. As students move up grades, scores tend to drop. They were particularly grim among Tacoma eighth graders meeting the standard. The number fell to 32 percent in 2018 from 37.3 percent in 2015.
“It’s very inconsistent in the growth pattern,” Malit said about the pattern for math assessment data.
Science was tested for the first time in third, eighth and tenth grades last year as the Washington Comprehensive Assessment for Science was implemented statewide. The results were some of the lowest of the three content areas, as much as 10 percent fewer students meeting results than in previous years.
The percentage of 11th graders meeting or exceeding standards in science were 27.1 percent in Tacoma and 27.5 percent in Puyallup.
Malit said she’s not too worried.
“Our science dipped because it’s a new test,” she said. “Historically, if you look at every time we use a new tool, more particularly in math and science area, in the first administration only about a third of our kids are meeting standards — that is typical.”
PLANS FOR IMPROVING
Moving ahead, officials from both districts said they’ll continue to refine their systems.
Puyallup plans to continue its Response to Intervention Program, which focuses on the needs of individual students, said Brian Fox, the district’s communications director.
“Instead of us talking about numbers all the time and scores and tests, we’re talking about Johnny — What can we do for Johnny?” Fox said. “And the byproduct may be that our scores go up.”
Puyallup is defining priority standards — the most important skills students should know before the end of the year — in its content areas and identifying holes in materials that help students learn those skills. Officials anticipate that implementing a preschool program within the next two years will better prepare students early-on and could also improve test scores.
Tacoma is narrowing its focus on K-12 priority standards for math and ELA. That includes implementing math and literacy frameworks that define high-quality instruction in the content areas.
Gone is the “I taught it, I hope you learned it,” mentality, Verhaar said. Instead, districts expect teachers to have one-on-one conferences with students to set individualized goals.
“You’ve got whole group instruction, small group instruction, one-on-one instruction and assessment guiding all of that,” Verhaar said.
This year, elementary schools in Tacoma with the lowest literacy performance were assigned a K-3 teacher to provide extra instruction alongside the classroom teacher.
The district also implemented Continuous Achievement Plans for each school this year. They are “designed to close identified student achievement gaps” and are tracked quarterly, rather than annually as in the past.
“We’re not going to give up,” Verhaar said.