Educators, Delaware at odds over Smarter Balanced test scores


DOVER — In the wake of the Smarter Balanced test score release, opponents have seized on them as a further point of criticism.

They see the low scores — proficiency rates of about 50 percent in English and 40 percent in math — as evidence of a flawed test design and state efforts.

But others claim the scores were to be expected and do not show errors in the state’s education plan.

At the heart of the issue is a debate over how much testing is too much — an issue that has divided lawmakers and led to fierce criticism of the Markell administration from a potentially small but vocal group of activists.

In total, 52 percent of students in grades three through eight and 11 were judged as skilled in English language arts, while 39 percent had acceptable knowledge of mathematics, according to test results.

This year is the first Delaware has used the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

13dsn smarter balanced boxOfficials predicted scores would fall from last year, although nearly every grade level saw test-takers beat the low expectations in both subjects. Only 11th graders, in math, failed to meet the projection, as 23 percent were proficient — below the 33 percent that was expected.

Education policymakers say Smarter Balanced is more challenging but also more applicable and more useful for job seekers.

“For the first time, our students had to do more than fill in bubbles,” Gov. Jack Markell said after the results were released Sept. 2. “They had to write essays, show their work and solve complex real-world problems.”

Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the education nonprofit Rodel Foundation of Delaware, said this test includes higher standards, which more accurately reflect what is expected of students in college and careers.

“In short, where the bar is set in the new test is more accurate and gives students, parents and educators a more honest assessment of where a given child actually stands,” he wrote in an email. “With that information, I believe teachers and students will adjust and ratchet up the performance over time.”

But others believe the Common Core standards are part of what has become an overcentralized bureaucracy where highly paid administrators, not individual teachers and principals, make decisions without regard for differences in how students learn.

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, has been one of the fiercest critics of the test.

He sponsored a bill this past legislative session that would allow parents to opt their children out of the test. After much debate, the bill passed but was vetoed by Gov. Markell, a Democrat. Lawmakers plan to try to overturn that veto when they reconvene in January.

Rep. Kowalko believes the test has no value in showing a student’s progress, despite assurances to the contrary from

Rep. John Kowalko

Rep. John Kowalko

the Department of Education.

“I still reserve the feeling and the thought that the scores mean absolutely nothing toward evaluating a student’s capabilities,” he said.

Activists feel there is too much standardized testing and that testing wastes valuable classroom time as instructors teach students how to pass the test, not how to learn and better themselves.

Education officials have acknowledged schools do have too many tests. They support a resolution passed earlier this summer which requires school districts to develop a list of all standardized tests by Dec. 31.

The resolution also forms a working group that will provide recommendations by June 30 on what tests should be eliminated.

While some people, including lawmakers, believe Smarter Balanced and other assessments given to students simply waste time, the Education Department disagrees.

“In order to help deliver our children into a place where they are successful in the world, we have to measure their progress on the way,” Secretary Mark Murphy said in a June hearing of the Senate Education Committee. “We have to understand whether they’re on track to be successful in those middle school years, those high school years and beyond.

“That’s what this is about. This is about measuring progress. And we use that progress, we use that measurement, in order to understand what’s working.”

Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, believes the state has “gone overboard with testing.”

She argues officials should shift the focus from testing to what she sees as the root cause: inequity. Students from poorer families tend to perform worse on standardized testing, and Rep. Williams thinks more resources are needed to fix that. Hers is a view supported by others.

The administration has been working to promote equality and fight general poverty, but it’s not a problem solved overnight, officials say.

While some lawmakers and activists want to eliminate Smarter Balanced entirely, as Rep. Kowalko hopes to do, supporters don’t think that is likely or wise.

Designing a new test would cost millions of dollars and take several years, Dr. Herdman said.

The Rodel Foundation of Delaware backs Smarter Balanced “because it is more accurate and because it helps prepare our young people for what they need to know in an increasingly complex, global world,” he said.

Groups like the state Board of Education support the test, while the Delaware State Education Association — the teachers’ union — is in favor of general across-the-board standards.

As for this year’s low scores, officials remain positive.

Students in lower grades did better because, proportionally, they’ve spent more of their time in school working with Common Core standards, which Delaware adopted in 2010.

“The expectation, certainly, is that it gets better and better,” Mr. Murphy said after the scores were made public. “If you look at the fact that kids in third grade generally did the best, you’ve got to remember … this new assessment, it’s not just a new way of testing, it’s testing different standards.”

Frederika Jenner, president of the DSEA, believes it is too soon to tell what the scores mean. After just one testing cycle, Smarter Balanced is too new to be judged, she said.

She did express worries about the overall number of tests Delaware students take in the course of their school careers.

“We are concerned about time taken up deliberately and also inadvertently from instruction in our schools across the state starting in kindergarten and early elementary,” she said.

“A lot of time goes to testing itself and I don’t mean the standard ordinary testing.”

Teachers are not opposed to assessments, they simply want ones that help “their students understand their strengths and weaknesses, what they’ve learned, where they are in the learning continuum,” she said.

While Smarter Balanced is new, teachers do not receive all of the data, which makes it hard for them to draw informed conclusions on how students did, Ms. Jenner said.

“Teachers and parents won’t see Johnny’s test,” she said. “To have really valuable insight into what the child got right, what the child got wrong … if I never see the test my understanding’s very limited.”

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