New statewide test brings expected drop in scores

DOVER — When schools switched to a tough new statewide test, Delaware education officials said they expected scores to drop — and they did.

The state released the preliminary results from the Smarter Balanced Assessment on Wednesday.

Statewide, only about half of the students scored proficient in English language arts; only one in four were proficient in math.

Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy said that Smarter Balanced is harder and different from past state assessments.

The tests, which are aligned to the controversial Common Core standards, require students to analyze “complex” texts and solve multi-step problems, to apply knowledge and “not just regurgitate it.”

03dsn Smarter Balanced scores marks“For the first time, our students had to do more than fill in bubbles,” Gov. Jack Markell said. “They had to write essays, show their work and solve complex, real world problems.”

Initially, Mr. Murphy said, not all students can be expected to meet the new standards. It doesn’t mean they learned any less, he said.

He insisted the achievement levels are only “one data point” for students.

“Obviously our parents, our students, our teachers have many data points to be able to understand completely how our students are doing and how they are progressing,” he said.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is a group of states, including Delaware, that joined together to develop an assessment aligned with the Common Core standards. Educators across the country helped formulate and review the test questions. They were also involved in scoring the assessments.

State officials said the Common Core standards, which Delaware adopted in 2010, will prepare students for a competitive workforce.

“We’ve heard over and over again that when we raise the bar for our students and we provide the adequate supports they will rise to the occasion, they will meet that new expectation,” Mr. Murphy said.

Despite the low proficiency levels, students outperformed predictions for them from Smarter Balanced in every grade level in English and in all but one grade in math.

Only 23 percent of students in 11th grade scored proficient in math, well below the projected 33 percent.

Students in lower grades performed better on the test than students in middle and high school, Gov. Markell said,

Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy

because they’ve spent a greater portion of their time in school receiving instruction aligned to the Common Core standards.

“The expectation, certainly, is that it gets better and better,” Mr. Murphy said. “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.”

The estimates were based on the results of a 2014 field test of 4 million students in 21 states. The results helped the Smarter Balanced consortium set score ranges for four achievement levels and predict the percentage of students who would meet proficiency benchmarks.

Students in grades three through eight and 11th grade took the assessment this year.

Mr. Murphy noted that juniors, who are busy with other tests like the SAT and ACT exams, didn’t take the previous state assessment.

Statewide, the tests boasted a 96.7 percent participation rate for English and a 95.8 percent rate for math, which meets the 95 percent threshold set by federal law.

Breaking it down by grade, only 11th grade fell below 95 percent, with participation levels at 90.5 percent in English and 89.3 percent in math.

By district, Christina School District, along with two technical school districts, Polytech and New Castle County Vocational-Technical, which only serve high school students, fell below 95 percent.

Both Polytech and New Castle County Vo-Tech had participation rates at 94 percent; Christina’s was just above 91 percent.

Mr. Murphy said no immediate consequences are planned for the district, but the state is in communication with the federal government and the districts about their participation.

The new assessments give parents and teachers better information about their students’ performance, state officials said, but because the data is different, it’s difficult to compare it to the previous test system, the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System.

Now, Mr. Murphy said, the state has a new baseline to track progress going forward. Districts can use the scores to look at their curriculum and teaching methods and make sure they’re meeting the needs of their students.

“Now that we have this base line, we will focus on growth of our students,” he said. “The bottom line is, as a community, as parents, we need to see our kids make additional progress because we believe this is a truer definition of what it means to be proficient,” Mr. Murphy added.

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