Some good, plenty of bad in state testing scores

DOVER — Delaware’s standardized test scores saw little change from 2018 but are mostly trending upward since the launch of the Smarter Balanced Assessment in 2015. Despite that, little more than half the students in grades three through eight tested as proficient in the English language arts section, while fewer than 50 percent of test-takers were found to be at grade level in math in 2019, according to data released by the state Thursday.

Scores for the SAT, which 11th-graders take instead of Smarter Balanced, found a majority of students fell short in the three subject areas.

On the Smarter Balanced test, about 53 percent of students met the target score in English, with 44 percent doing so in math. The English score is down 1 percent from the prior year, while the math results are unchanged.

In total, seven of Delaware’s 16 school districts that administer Smarter Balanced were under the state proficiency average for both English and math. Those districts are Capital, Christina, Colonial, Delmar, Laurel, Red Clay and Woodbridge.

The Delaware Department of Education sought to downplay the negative results, noting other states that use Smarter Balanced have seen similar trends and highlighting individual schools that have made progress.

“We must focus our time and resources on promoting early diagnosis and intervention using a range of assessments throughout the year and training educators on how to use the data available to them to effect change in curriculum and instruction,” Education Secretary Susan Bunting said in a statement. “We also must provide technical assistance and other support to our schools and districts as they select local curricula so all children have access to high quality materials and assessments.”

But the state teachers union, which has been openly critical of Smarter Balanced since its inception, excoriated the test as a waste of time and money.

“These stagnant test results yet again make us wonder what the purpose of this assessment is. What does the state want to get from these Smarter Balance Assessments, and is it getting that?” Delaware State Education Association President Stephanie Ingram said in a statement. “We are an organization that is made up of a majority of our public school teachers, and we can tell you that these test scores do not accurately reflect student and teacher performance.

“And to top it off, the results are given to our teachers too late in the year for them to use in differentiating their instruction to actually make a difference in their student’s learning. If this assessment is given to show student improvement then it isn’t working. We need a timely and responsive representation of how the students are learning and comprehending what they are taught throughout the year.”

On the SAT, which the state began using to measure progress for high school juniors instead of Smarter Balanced in 2016, 48 percent were proficient in the evidenced-based reading and writing section, 28 percent were proficient in the math portion and 42 percent were proficient on the essay part of the test.

The reading and writing and essay scores are each down 2 percent from 2018, while math is the same.

Delaware adopted new science and social studies tests this year, although proficiency scores have yet to be determined. Those results are expected to be released in the winter after state education officials examine how students did on the assessments.

Smarter Balanced is a computer-based test taken in the spring, although the exact date varies from school to school. The SAT remains a paper and pencil test, and it is generally taken around the same time of year.

Based on their scores on Smarter Balanced, students are grouped into four categories. A three or four demonstrates proficiency, while a one or two indicates a student is not at grade level in that subject.

About 22 percent of test-takers recorded a four in English, while 24 percent received a one. In English language arts, approximately 21 percent earned a four and 29 percent were given a one.

Students receive different questions as the test goes on, with harder questions being worth more points.

“As students pull an item, the algorithm pulls an item for them, if they do well on it, it pulls a harder item. All within grade level but more difficult items,” Theresa Bennett, director of the Department of Education’s Office of Assessment, said when discussing test results last year.

“If they don’t do well on it over a couple of items, then it drops back down again, so it keeps trying to find that sweet spot for the student so we can really see where they are. So, it continues to adjust all the way through the assessment.”

District results

Cape Henlopen School District had the highest Smarter Balanced scores in the state, with 67 percent of students in grades three through eight testing as proficient in English and 60 percent passing muster in math.

Colonial and Woodbridge were the two lowest-scoring districts in both math and English.

Statewide, 28 percent of English language learners scored at grade level for English, up from 15 percent in 2015, while 13 percent of students with disabilities and 36 percent of low-income students tested as proficient. The latter two results are virtually unchanged from four years ago.

In math, 27 percent of non-native English speakers, 10 percent of students with disabilities and 27 percent of low-income students received passing grades. For English learners, the 2019 results mark an increase of 12 percent from 2015, while the percent proficient among the subgroup of students with disabilities is the same as 2015. The low-income population witnessed a 3 percent increase.

Laurel and Seaford have seen major jumps in test scores since 2015, the first year Smarter Balanced was used. Seaford’s proficiency in English has climbed from 38 to 56 percent and, in math, from 28 to 48 percent. Although Laurel remains below the state average, it has seen increases from 31 to 48 percent in English and 21 to 39 percent in math.

“When asked to explain our success we are able to point to simple addition,” Seaford Superintendent David Perrington said in a statement. “The district has worked hard at bringing together a number of dynamics that are essential for student achievement. These include a supportive school board, a vision-driven district office staff, a strong building leadership, a committed teaching staff, an engaged student body and a caring school community.

“At the beginning of the school year we discussed the concept ‘Push Don’t Pity.’ This model is grounded in the belief of high expectations for all students. It requires us as educators to accept the responsibility of each student’s learning experience and each student to believe they have the capacity to succeed. When added successfully together we have a sum of increasing student achievement.”

In contrast, Caesar Rodney is up 1 point in English and down 1 point in math over the past four years, though it still surpassed the state average. Capital has increased by 1 percentage point in math and decreased by 4 points in English in that timeframe.

Among Downstate non-charter high schools, only Caesar Rodney, Cape Henlopen, Polytech and Sussex Tech surpassed the state average for the SAT in all three categories. Lake Forest, Laurel, Seaford, Sussex Central and Woodbridge failed to meet the mean in the evidence-based reading and writing, math and essay portions of the test.

Dover was the only high school in Kent or Sussex that saw scores improve in each of the three areas from 2018.

Seaford saw a combined drop of 26 percentage points from the year before, with essay proficiency plummeting from 29 to 11 percent.

Cab Calloway School of the Arts saw the highest proficiency score in each category among non-charter high schools, while Sussex Tech took the prize for Downstate schools.

Scores on both Smarter Balanced and the SAT varied greatly for charter schools: Just 4 percent of test-takers at Gateway Lab School, for instance, scored at grade level in math, while 83 percent at Sussex Academy did so.

While there was controversy in 2015 over some parents seeking to exempt their children from the Smarter Balanced test against the wishes of the administration (a bill to allow opting out passed the General Assembly but was vetoed by then Gov. Jack Markell), the statewide participation rate was nearly 99 percent this year.

About 9,100 Delaware students took the SAT through school in 2019, a participation rate of 89 percent.

Students should receive their results in the mail in the next week or two. More information is available online at

Test scores

Below are the percentage of students in grades three through eight in each district who tested as proficient in English language arts and math on the state’s standardized test. Listed first is the district, followed by the proficiency percentage in English and then in math, with the percentage of students defined as low-income last. The three vocational and technical districts are not included because they only contain high schools, and the typical standardized test stops after eighth grade.

Statewide: 53, 44, 32
Appoquinimink: 65, 52, 12
Brandywine: 53, 43, 29
Caesar Rodney: 65, 50, 28
Cape Henlopen: 67, 60, 26
Capital: 44, 33, 47
Christina: 40, 37, 41
Colonial: 41, 26, 38
Delmar: 52, 43, 14
Indian River: 61, 56, 32
Lake Forest: 60, 53, 39
Laurel: 48, 39, 43
Milford: 52, 47, 41
Red Clay: 50, 39, 32
Seaford: 56, 48, 46
Smyrna: 57, 51, 24
Woodbridge: 40, 33, 35

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