Commentary: Delaware elementary schools need to look at test scores in a new way

Delaware released its 2018-19 student test scores recently with the headline that achievement is sluggish. Some state leaders contend the tests are a waste of time and money. But if we look at the data in a new way, following groups of students over time, we see important successes and failures everyone could learn from.

Delaware currently shows this year’s third-graders compared to last year’s third-graders. Instead, what they need to ask is: how did this year’s fourth-graders compare to how they performed as third-graders last year? When we start to look at the data in cohorts over time, we see good news in elementary reading that has been obscured.

Each cohort of third-graders improves their English Language Arts achievement by an average of 5 percent as they move into fourth and then fifth grade. Unfortunately, achievement drops down between fifth and sixth grade for the classes of 2024 and 2025.

In math, each cohort of students is experiencing a steady decline. The students’ slide is concerning because future math success depends on having a solid foundation in arithmetic. Gaps in students’ understanding become much harder to fill over time.

All of the Smarter Balanced states are experiencing this problem, not just Delaware. The new standards require a substantial increase in students’ understanding of math concepts. This is a heavy lift even for expert math teachers and they need tremendous support in figuring out how to make the shift in their teaching.

What should Delaware do? First, generate and lock in feedback from teachers. The state, or a group of concerned districts, should convene master elementary teachers at each grade level and begin to generate hypotheses about what might be the contributing factors to the success and failure.

Secretary of Education Susan Bunting has stressed the need to help teachers understand how to use data available to effect change in curriculum and instruction. The master teachers can explore what needs to be different and what’s going well. What are they doing right that can be replicated in more ELA classrooms? Are teachers doing something valuable with the way they organize small reading groups?

What needs to change in math? Is pacing off: Are teachers moving too fast or too slow through certain math topics? The initial answers to these questions don’t need to articulate definitive causes, but can start an ongoing inquiry that becomes a published guide for teachers across the state.

Such a review is akin to what Pixar does after every movie. Even hits such as “The Incredibles” or “Inside Out” are subjected to the questions: What should we do again? What should we not do? What should we do differently next time?

Second, we need to build learning cases of student success and failure. Investigate a group of students who started out meeting standards in third grade and determine why they have progressed as fourth- and fifth-graders but slipped as sixth- and seventh-graders. Assemble a complete picture of their academic and social foundations.

Similarly, we need to review a group of students who initially weren’t meeting standards and have grown to do so. Delaware could partner with other Smarter Balanced states in this work, harnessing the power of being in a consortium.

There’s a lot to be encouraged by and worried about in Delaware’s latest test scores than currently meets the eye. If the state wants to improve, we need to stop obscuring our failures and successes and begin learning from them.

David Wakelyn is a consultant with Union Square Learning, a nonprofit organization, based in Washington, “helping educational organizations develop innovative ideas and achieve better results.”

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