According to the numbers, only 17 percent of students between third and 11th grade are meeting or exceeding new English Language Arts standards territorywide, along with just 7 percent in math, but Education officials said Tuesday they expect “drastic” growth over the next few years as the department makes the push to transform teaching methods and change student thinking within the classroom.
This spring, nearly 8,900 students took the new Smarter Balanced assessment and alternate assessment aligned to national Common Core Standards for College and Career Readiness. The standards set the bar higher in each subject area and, while officials said Tuesday that the scores are low, it doesn’t mean that students are doing worse – it just means the standards and tests are harder.
“As we anticipated, and nationally it is the same, the students’ performance was not where it should be because of this new assessment,” Assistant Education Commissioner Chermaine Hobson-Johnson said on a conference call with reporters. “We do anticipate with all of the interventions and strategies that we’re placing on the teachers, who are also working well to ensure that our students do what is necessary to prepare for them for life beyond high school, that there will be a growth.”
She said there was “a decline in scores as anticipated, but we will be changing in a positive direction as we move forward with our students.”
Education adopted the standards in 2010, began rolling them out in the 2013-14 school year and recently did a practice run to see what assessment would work well in the territory. This year, however, was the first full year of implementation and switch from the old VITAL-S, a test on paper, to an online assessment that officials said could take six hours – and up to two weeks based on the school’s testing schedule – to complete.
The two tests are so different, officials said, that even the results from this year’s assessment can’t be compared to student scores in previous years.
With the previous tests, “the questions were more linear, whereas the tests the students are receiving now are multi-tiered so that they are dealing with two to three parts for the same question,” Hobson-Johnson said.
“The critical thinking and problem solving skills needed for this test are so much higher,” she said. “The students have to be a lot more analytical. They have to synthesize a lot more information, process everything and that’s why it sometimes takes them two to three days. They have to spend a lot more time going through one item because of the rigor of each question.”
Making the Next Move
Officials said Tuesday that teachers throughout the territory are familiar with the nationwide concerns over the Common Core standards and overall have “mixed feelings” about their implementation.
“I think that with any new initiative, there are mixed feelings from professionals, whether it be about the standards or the assessments – or any assessment,” St. Thomas-St. John Deputy Superintendent Michael Harrigan said Tuesday.
“Our feeling is that there would have been concerns whatever the direction we decided to go and it’s definitely healthy that our teachers are familiar with the subject matter and getting to know what is going on nationally,” he said. “Do those concerns still exist? Yes. But we feel comfortable that we have provided sufficient information and training for people to help make them feel more comfortable over time and it does take time. It doesn’t just happen in one or two years.”
While Education waits on the results of a communication survey, which closes Wednesday, to get more feedback from educators and administrators on how they feel about the standards as a whole, the department’s next move is to keep moving forward on professional development and making sure teachers are fully prepared to work within their classrooms.
One of the tools that come along with the Smarter Balanced assessment is the ability to give an interim assessment to students once or twice throughout the year to see how they are progressing, Education State Assessment Director Alexandria Baltimore-Hookfin said.
“This system uses more than the end-of-the-year tests. It is a balanced approach that includes these interim assessments that can administer throughout the school year to monitor how the students are doing,” Baltimore-Hookfin said.
She added that each school will also have access to its own results and can use that to “inform instruction” in the classroom, while parents also receive reports in September and October about their children and how they are doing.
Harrigan said the districts also started providing early release days for professional development training. He explained that once a month, students are dismissed three hours early – after lunch – to give teachers and administrators a chance to work together on the department’s three priorities (student achievement, school culture and teacher leader effectiveness) and how they can be used to promote success with the assessments. Smarter Balanced assessment data will also be used to make decisions relating to teaching, Harrigan said.
Officials said overall the professional development is working.
“What we’re seeing as a result is that the teachers are changing the way they are reaching the students,” Hobson-Johnson said. “We have more facilitated teaching taking place in the classrooms, more critical thinking activities and projects, and we are moving away from those old yes, no, multiple choice responses.”
“We’re getting the students to tell us why and how they got to the answer,” she continued. “We have the students doing more writing. And on the other side we have the teachers constantly learning and working with each other because we realized that with these new standards, everyone is going to have to adjust their thinking.”