Third graders’ test scores plummeted. Scores at a turnaround high school went up. That might mean a lot—or, educators suggested, it just as likely might not.
Those developments emerged Tuesday, as the state released a new batch standardized test scores for public elementary, middle and high schools—high-stakes statistics often used to judge and reward or punish teachers and school systems.
Scores dropped for most New Haven K-8 schools, following a statewide trend, while high schools showed “solid” performance, said Superintendent Garth Harries. Harries shared the results of the Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMT) for grades 3 to 8 and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) for high school sophomores at a press briefing at 54 Meadow St. Tuesday.
As the scores emerged, so did questions surrounding the relevancy of the tests, for several reasons: Schools are overhauling the way they teach kids, so these legacy tests are no longer aligned with the way kids are taught. High school scores don’t show growth of individual kids. Some of the sample sets are too small to have statistical relevance upon which to draw conclusions. And the schools plan to eliminate the CMT and CAPT next year anyway, forcing the district to reset its goals for improvement on the tests.
Scores for K-8 schools weren’t rosy.
Kids in grades 3 to 8 are tested every March on math, reading and writing; those in grades 5 and 8 are also tested on science. Scores are measured by the number of kids scoring “at goal,” which means at grade level; and “proficient,” a lower standard.
The number of kids scoring at “goal” across all subjects and all grade levels dropped from 42.2 to 40.0 percent. The number scoring “proficient” also fell from 66.5 to 64.1 percent.
Much of the decline stemmed from the 3rd grade, especially in math, where 29.9 percent of kids rated “at goal” on the CMT, down from 41.7 percent the previous year.
That’s no surprise, given the statewide results. Third-grade math scores showed the biggest declines statewide: The number of 3rd-graders statewide scoring at “goal” in math dropped by 5.2 percent, from 66.8 to 61.6 percent.
Harries and Stefan Pryor, the state education commissioner, gave the same explanation for the decline: The historic tests no longer fit with the new way of teaching that’s spreading across the country, as schools adapt to a new set of national standards called the Common Core. The Common Core State Standards, which will take effect in the 2014-15 school year, call for teaching kids fewer subjects with more rigor. Schools have already adjusted their teaching to this new model, but the tests haven’t yet caught up.
“It is increasingly apparent that our legacy tests are out of sync with the new Common Core standards,” said Pryor.
New Haven Teachers union President Dave Cicarella agreed. The test declines are “not that worrisome,” he said, because “we’re still using a test that doesn’t match our instruction.” He said scores also dipped years ago, when schools shifted to the current tests from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
Common Core is bringing a major shift in “what students learn and when they learn it,” Harries said.
For example, Harries said, kids in New Haven used to touch briefly on many math topics in 3rd grade, including probability and statistics. Now they’ve switched to Singapore Math, in which they learn fewer subjects with more depth. Now students (like Nilexy Conception, pictured at the top of this story in a 2011 Singapore Math lesson at Fair Haven School) study fractions in much more depth, but never make it to probability, which is on the CMT.
All schools statewide are going to ditch the CMT and CAPT in 2014-15 and start using the Smarter Balance tests, which are aligned to the Common Core. But Pryor has sought federal permission to let school districts opt to switch to the new tests a year earlier, in the 2013-14 school year. Pryor said Tuesday that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has indicated he will grant the flexibility.
Harries said New Haven will almost certainly scrap the CMT and CAPT in the upcoming school year if given the opportunity, because schools have already changed the way they teach to adapt to Common Core.
“I’d be shocked” if New Haven kept using the CMT and CAPT next year, he said. (The district may have to keep the CAPT science test, because Common Core doesn’t yet specify standards for science.)
When New Haven switches to the new tests, scores are likely to drop dramatically—as they did recently in New York—due to the higher standards. Harries said he will have to talk to the school board about “reconsidering” the district’s goals for growth on tests, given the transition.
In a conference call Tuesday afternoon, Commissioner Pryor highlighted one New Haven high school, High School in the Community (HSC), as a bright spot among test scores.
HSC sophomores posted gains in every subject. The number of students scoring at goal in reading shot up from 8.7 percent to 24.4 percent. That outpaced statewide gains, Pryor noted in a press release: Statewide, the number of students scoring at goal in reading rose by 1.0 percent, from 47.5 percent to 48.5 percent.
The number of kids scoring “at goal” in rose from 8.7 percent to 24.4 percent in reading; from 13.3 to 14.3 percent in math; and from 5.9 to 17.3 percent in science. Between 41 and 52 kids took each subject test, which was consistent with the prior year.
School officials touted the results as an early success for “mastery-based learning,” a new approach HSC is gradually rolling out. Read about that experiment here; click here to read a series of stories about the first year of the experiments taking place in general at HSC under new union management.
“We are highly encouraged by the progress made by High School in the Community,” Pryor said in a phone conference call Tuesday.
He didn’t mention that sophomores taking the CAPT didn’t fully engage in “mastery-based learning,” which calls for kids to master each subject before they move on. Only about half of sophomore classes used the new method because it’s being phased in, starting with the freshmen.
Pryor highlighted HSC because the state has made a major investment in its overhaul. As part of a new statewide reform plan, the state poured $2.1 million into the 230-student school last year alone to fund a “turnaround” effort there run by the teachers union. The changes came as HSC became one of the first four schools in the Commissioner’s Network of low-performing schools that got extra state support to fund reforms.
Gains in scores in the four Commissioner’s Network schools are “initial signs that our signature reforms are working,” Pryor declared.
Pryor was asked how much weight should be given to the CAPT, given that it doesn’t show growth for individual kids, and given that schools will shortly abandon the test for a measurement that’s considered more meaningful. (The test compares this year’s sophomores to last year’s, which is a different group of kids.)
Pryor acknowledged the limitation of the test, but said “the trends that are perceived in these data are nonetheless” important.
Harries was asked the same question.
“It’s a limited measure,” Harries said, “because it’s a different group of kids” who take the test each year. He said the test gains at HSC are “an indicator of progress, but it’s far from a declaration of victory.”
“The final measure,” said Harries, “has to be college, career and life success.”
Harries said the district is getting better at measuring college success, and is working on ways to start measuring career success.
The scores released Tuesday will provide the basis for how the district grades teachers, principals and schools. Harries said he knows of no cases where where CMTs will be the deciding factor in whether a teacher gets fired. The district has already issued teachers provisional ratings based on other test data, as well as their professional conduct and classroom observations. Harries said any decisions on how to grade teachers or schools will keep in mind the greater context of how other peers performed: For example, 3rd-grade teachers won’t be automatically punished for the declining scores; their kids’ performance will be seen in relation to how other teachers’ kids performed in comparable classrooms.
For the first time, test scores will be available to parents through the PowerSchools system, starting in the fall, Harries said.