Which education reports matter?

Importance of school indicators is a 'huge question'

April 28, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • "I want to know how our kids are doing. I want us to be constantly adjusting our instruction forward." - Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox
File photo

Assessment tests, college-entrance exams, advanced placement tests, graduation rates, dropout rates ...

Every year, a pile of reports and statistics is produced to show how students and public school systems are faring.

But which ones really matter when it comes to figuring out how a school system is doing its job — to educate its community’s young people?

“That is a huge question,” said Joseph Murphy, who teaches school reform at the Vanderbilt Peabody College, Vanderbilt University’s College of Education & Human Development. “Anything you think is important, you want to measure.”

Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said parents and school systems should determine which indicators are important.

The state department provides reports on various issues and statistics for school systems, but stopped ranking the state’s local school systems many years ago, he said.

Murphy recommended looking at multiple measures that vary since information about elementary school progress differs from high school progress, and getting as close as possible to measurable outcomes.

“At the end of the day the question is, ‘Were you effective or were you not effective?’” Murphy said.

Assessing assessments

Washington County Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and board members acknowledged, some reluctantly, the importance of standardized tests such as the Maryland School Assessments, or MSAs, given in elementary and middle school, and the High School Assessments.

“I do take seriously the MSAs. I want to know how our kids are doing,” said Wilcox, who noted he uses assessment test results to determine the areas in which the school system needs to improve. “I want us to be constantly adjusting our instruction forward.”

School Board Vice President Jacqueline Fischer said because some students do not test well, she’d prefer to look at students’ success through their high school years.

“I guess it has to be a combination of the various testing scores, but you’ve got to look at their schoolwork, too, because that’s what’s happening every day in their lives,” said Fischer, a retired teacher.

Board member Karen Harshman said she doesn’t like “standardizing students,” noting that test results can be affected by what’s going on in a student’s life on the testing day.

“Sometimes after the third test in the day, the students really were not too interested in taking any more,” said Harshman, a retired high school English teacher.

Harshman said she would use assessment test results as an evaluation tool, but doesn’t believe too much emphasis should be placed on standardized tests.

Board member Paul Bailey said he wasn’t sure testing is always the best indicator of how students are performing.

“It’s one assessment, one tool that can be used in assessing a youngster,” Bailey said. “I believe the daily contact that a teacher has with a youngster and their developmental stages is probably the most important, in my estimation.”

Bailey said that as students get older, educators rely on assessment tests to compare the school system’s students to state and national averages.

Board member W. Edward Forrest said while he heard his son was making progress and his grades reflected that, it was the assessment test results that gave him a clear picture of that progress.

Equally important to him, Forrest said, was that his son was taking band, art and a foreign language he was interested in learning.

Much of the talk about school reform and the focus on assessments as the sole indicator of how well a school is doing has “really sucked the life out of teaching,” Wilcox said.

Teachers cannot always afford to take advantage of “teachable moments” because they have a curriculum to teach, Wilcox said.

Beyond the tests

Neither Wilcox nor the school board members want to rely solely on assessment results. In addition to being interested in other reports — such as SAT results — some said they found anecdotal information a good judge of the school system.

Wilcox said he looks at formal data about college-entrance exams, assessment tests and post-secondary information about the school system’s graduates, but he also takes into account anecdotal information.

For instance, Wilcox said he hears from local employers how the school system’s graduates are doing.

“It’s not just about what grades they get,” board member Justin Hartings said, pointing out that athletes learn teamwork and how to work toward a common goal. “But, again, speaking more as a parent, you can tell if students are engaged in learning and if they’re enthusiastic and if they are asking good questions, and if they want to push their understanding further.”

That, to him, is as good of an indicator as good scores, Hartings said.

Such things as enthusiasm are much harder to quantify, hence standardized tests are used, Hartings said.

“My point is, it’s sort of a mosaic where there’s all these different parts that tell us where we’re doing well and where we’re not doing well,” Hartings said.

A good indicator of how well elementary schools are doing is the sense a person gets when they walk into the school, Wilcox said.

“You walk into a good school at the elementary level, you just know it,” Wilcox said.

Watch when the students arrive and see whether they are dragging their backpacks or are excited and running into the school, he said.

“I’ll know that we’ve made it as a district when kids run into school as they run out of school,” Wilcox said.

Forrest said he believes it’s important for the school system to make available rigorous high school courses with “meat to them” and for the content of those courses to be consistent from school to school.

The school system could bolster what it does for average and underperforming students, Forrest suggested.

“I think we need higher expectations for them,” he said. “I think the best teachers need to be in front of struggling students.”

Harshman said educators should make sure enrolling in an advanced placement course is worth the student’s time and effort. Not all colleges offer credit to students who earn a passing score on an AP exam, she said.

Harshman said vocational courses are important for preparing students for careers. She said she’s seen many help-wanted ads for tradespeople and thinks the school system should widen its vocational offerings.

Back to basics

Board member Donna Brightman said for her, a big indicator of the school system’s success is whether students are reading at least at grade level.

She provided statistics from early in the school year that showed about 42 percent of students in first to fifth grades and about 25 percent of middle school students were reading below grade level.

Assistant Schools Superintendent Donna Hanlin said the elementary statistics stem from individual evaluations that teachers conduct with students. The teachers receive training in how to evaluate students’ reading levels, but there could be variations from teacher to teacher, she said.

Although teachers have used this information for years, this is the first year the school system has pulled the information together to get a picture of how it’s doing in terms of students reading at grade level, Hanlin said.

Reading levels for middle schoolers were determined by standardized assessments the students took electronically, said Beth Downin, supervisor for reading and English language arts for middle and high schools.

Students will retake these assessments at the end of their semester course or school year to see how individual students and entire grades have progressed, school system officials said.

“We can talk about any test you want to talk about. If a student can’t read, they cannot succeed in school. That’s No. 1 to me,” Brightman said. “We’ve got to get it right in the early years.”

If a child can’t read, the child cannot learn social studies, financial literacy, take advanced placement tests in high school for college credit or be successful in life, she said.

Checking the benchmarks

Board President Wayne Ridenour said he takes assessment test results into consideration, with an emphasis on student growth.

It’s one thing to say a child has progressed from third to fourth grade, but that doesn’t explain whether the child mastered the necessary math, language and writing skills, he said.

“I think that’s huge and I think that’s really going to be a big push when we get into the Common Core curriculum,” Ridenour said.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators and experts to provide a consistent framework to prepare students for college and the work force.

The Common Core State Standards mission statement says they are designed to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.

Maryland and Pennsylvania are in a consortium of 24 states that is creating new math and English PARCC — The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — assessment tests to go with the coming Common Core curriculum, according to the consortium’s website at All 24 states would provide the same assessment tests, according to an email from Chad Colby with Achieve, a management partner with the consortium.

The school system’s benchmark assessments try to assess how much students have learned during a course or grade level, Ridenour said.

In addition to looking at elementary school MSA results, Wilcox said he reviews benchmark assessment information to see how the school system is doing.

Those results are valuable to teachers because they gauge how well students learned recent material and how much they know of material about to be taught, he said. How much students know about an upcoming lesson helps the teacher decide how much time to spend on the subject, he said.

Benchmark assessments are provided in kindergarten through 12th grade, at least twice a course or grade, in varying subjects depending on whether the student is in elementary, middle or high school, school system officials said.

In high school, there are benchmark assessments for AP courses, English, and different social studies, math and science courses, school system officials said. Benchmark assessments for middle schoolers are in language arts, social studies, science, foreign language and math.

Elementary teachers conduct benchmark assessments in science, math and reading.

Harshman said she has concerns about the validity of benchmark assessments after discovering the key answer sheet provided for a benchmark test she gave her 12th grade English class contained errors and there was a similar problem with an elementary school benchmark test.

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