BOISE • Big changes could be coming to Idaho’s statewide achievement test for public school students.
This week, the State Board of Education will consider whether to postpone for a year the graduation requirement for passing the test in language arts and math. That requirement takes effect with this year’s 10th-graders, who take the exam in spring. They would have until 12th grade to pass the exam.
The test has faced a litany of criticism from educators, such its length, its purpose and the wisdom of imperiling a student’s graduation by making passage a necessity for a diploma.
School officials point to the first round of tests given last spring to provide a baseline on students’s abilities, from which to measure future growth.
Thousands of Idaho10th-graders fell short, raising fears among school officials that districts could have to retool themselves into remediation factories to make certain that students can pass the exam by graduation, especially in math.
Moreover, some districts question whether the test can do what it’s designed to do: measure college readiness. School officials say that even students who pass advanced-placement exams in high school for college credit are faltering on the graduation test. And many professional-technical students not on a college track also struggled — raising the prospect that a college-readiness test could trip up students trying to start professional-technical careers.
The bottom line: Idaho’s high-stakes test can keep students who have demonstrated their ability to do college work from graduating, says Don Coberly, Boise School District superintendent.
Coberly, the Idaho Education Association, the Idaho School Boards Association, lawmakers and others met with some State Board members earlier this month to review the problems.
“The State Board has heard and is listening and discussing how to address those concerns,” said Debbie Critchfield, a state board member and former school board trustee in Cassia County. “I don’t see the board shying away from the discussion.”
As officials prepare to examine the exam, here’s some background on how we got here.
What are the tests?
In 2011, Idaho lawmakers signed onto a growing movement called Common Core State Standards, which created uniform goals for what students should know before they graduate.
States also came together in two groups to develop exams measuring how well students meet those goals.
Behind Common Core was the notion that states would have the opportunity to compare educational progress against each other, since everyone would be working from a common sets of standards and similar assessments. Idaho called its program Idaho Core Standards and is part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a group of about 20 states that jointly created the exam.
Idaho gave the test — the Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced — a couple of practice runs and then last spring students took it not as a graduation requirement but to give Idaho a baseline from which to measure academic growth.
The new Idaho Common Core assessment is significantly different than the exams students took for several year beginning in the early 2000s, which were basic skills exams. The Common Core exam takes problem-solving and requires test-takers to show evaluators their work.
Where does the graduation requirement fit in?
Since the days of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, a federal program that was supposed to ensure all kids got a solid education, the government has required that school districts test students in grades three through eight and once in high school.
Idaho’s State Board of Education went No Children Left Behind one better. It decided that passage of the exam would be a requirement for high school graduation. Many students who don’t pass the tests, however, have used other criteria such as grades and other tests scores to prove they meet the standards to graduate.
What’s wrong with the test?
Educators list a number of concerns:
• The exam takes up to eight hours in some cases, given over multiple days. The long tests clog computer labs in schools and take time away from instruction.
• Idaho’s achievement test is a point-in-time exam, not a long-range look at a student’s performance, and shouldn’t be used to decide the fate of a student’s entire education career. Sherri Ybarra, state superintendent of public instruction, says the state should use multiple measures over multiple years to get a more accurate assessment of a student’s knowledge.
• Districts get little feedback from the exam to guide teachers on where students lag in knowledge.
• The test puts too many good students at risk of not graduating. Schools and districts should be held accountable for student performance on exams, but a student shouldn’t face such drastic consequences.
How important is test feedback in instruction?
At Borah High School in Boise, just 23 percent of 10th-graders were proficient in math based on preliminary results from the exam last spring. Borah also has the highest number of limited-English proficient students in the state — nearly 11 percent of the school’s population, Coberly said. More than half of its students are low-income. Both factors are indicators of the potential for students to struggle more on exams.
Feedback might indicate to a math teacher, for instance, that students aren’t understanding different kinds of triangles, allowing the teacher to focus additional instruction.
Tim Standlee, Borah High’s principal, says that it is difficult to help students succeed without more refined data from the test. “It’s hard to tell them, ‘Just do better,’” he said.
That may be a fixable problem, Critchfield said. Idaho has control over how much information is made available to educators from the exams, and that will be one of the topics the State Board will evaluate over the next several months.
How will schools deal with remediating students who aren’t proficient on the achievement test?
Nampa School District is working on teacher training and its high schools are developing programs that will target students who need additional work to pass the exam.
“Each (school) is taking a different approach,” said Nicole MacTavish, assistant superintendent.
In spring, out of 1,920 Boise School District 10th-graders, 1,190 weren’t proficient on math and 565 fell below standards in language arts. If the graduation requirement had been in place last spring, the district would need 71 sections of classes and a dozen teachers to provide the needed remedial instruction, Coberly said. Students would have to burn music and other electives to make time for additional math or English instruction, he said. Coberly anticipates more students wwill do better on the achievement test this spring, but that could still leave the district with large numbers of students in need of extra help.
Ok, but don’t the results spotlight a big failing in education? Shouldn’t the schools have to do what it takes to make certain students know math and language arts before they graduate?
Coberly said he isn’t dodging accountability. Schools and districts should be held accountable for the students they produce. But the students themselves should not be penalized with their graduation at risk, he and other officials say. Accountability could come in several forms: requiring districts to create plans for improving student achievement, or working with schools to make sure they to have enough resources for instruction, said Coby Dennis, deputy superintendent.
High schools are supposed to get kids ready for college. If they graduate without knowing enough to pass the tests, aren’t high schools just passing the buck to Idaho colleges?
Colleges do see the effect of students who don’t get properly prepared in high school. At College of Western Idaho, for example, 70 percent of recent high school graduates who enrolled this fall required math remediation before moving to college-level math.
Of 579 recent high school graduates, more than 400 were in what CWI calls College Prep Math. Students can earn CWI credit for the work, but those credits typically don’t transfer to a university. Some students spend only a short time before the math comes back to them and they can move out of College Prep Math; others stay a while, said Carol J. Crothers, coordinator at the Nampa campus’s Math Solution Center. Without the help, however, students face a difficult time in college math classes.
Still, there is no sitgma attached to being in a remedial class, Crothers said: “It is ... our norm.”
The test has been around for at least three years. Why weren’t these issues worked out before now?
Coberly has raised concerns about the achievement test for at least two years. Questions about using the exam as a high-stakes test and a measure of college readiness should have been addressed before the state went looking for a test that promised such a sweeping change to assessing students, he said.
Critchfield said she doesn’t know why these concerns weren’t addressed earlier. “Why now? Why not now? Let’s take care of it now. Let’s tackle it now. It is time. I think some of the issues regarding Smarter Balanced are fixable.”