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Student test scores likely to take big hit

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico public schools will receive their first Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers test results in October – with Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera again warning parents, students and educators to brace themselves for lower scores.

New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera

SKANDERA: The dip “is because we raised the bar”

In an interview with Journal editors and reporters Thursday, Skandera said other states that have started using PARCC, a new test designed to measure students’ grasp of Common Core state standards, have seen a 20 percent to 40 percent drop in students rated proficient under the former Standards Based Assessment.

New Mexico, she said, should expect a similar result.

“We don’t know where New Mexico is going to fall on that spectrum, but it is fair to say we adopted those same higher standards, so we can anticipate and be prepared,” she said. “The dip won’t be because our kids got worse or our teachers aren’t teaching as well – it is because we raised the bar.”

Aggregate high school results will be released Oct. 16 and third-grade to eighth-grade results Oct. 30. Individual reports for each child will be available by Nov. 2.

Skandera said she expects scores to rise in the coming years as PARCC becomes more familiar and student achievement improves.

She cited the example of Kentucky, which saw a 40-percentage-point drop in proficiency when it adopted PARCC four years ago, falling from around 70 percent proficiency to around 30 percent. Today, the equivalent rates have climbed back to the mid-60s.

“They dropped significantly and are closing that gap very quickly,” she said.

A new test typically shows lower scores in the first year, Skandera said, and PARCC also has the challenge of an unfamiliar format. The online, free-response test asks students to show their work and demonstrate how they got to an answer.

This sort of exam is a better measure of real-world skills than the typical multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble style, Skandera said.

“It gives us much richer information for our teachers and our parents,” she said. “This is a great step for our state.”

A major goal of the assessment, Skandera said, is to get a better sense of whether students will make it in college, and higher education administrators have valuable input on the subject.

“We are graduating students with diplomas and saying they’re ready, and that is frankly not true – some are and some aren’t,” Skandera said, referring to what she called the “honesty gap.” “Higher ed has been very supportive of the standards and the expectations.”

Long process

Skandera explained that analyzing PARCC results has been a long process, requiring administrators to set expectations and cutoff points for proficiency.

She said she was pleased higher education officials, including New Mexico Secretary of Higher Education Barbara Damron, are taking part in the discussions on where to set the bar on high school PARCC testing.

To help ease the transition to PARCC, high school juniors can pass the test with a score of three on the five-point grading scale. Eventually, they will have to get a four, Skandera said.

The test is one way high school juniors can demonstrate required proficiency in five subject areas, which is needed to graduate. There are re-test opportunities and alternate routes to receive a diploma.

There have been loud complaints about overtesting, and Skandera said that next year the PARCC test will be 90 minutes shorter for all grades, and there will be one testing window period instead of two.

Skandera said this translates to school administrators spending less time on test organization.

“Change is always hard, especially when you are raising the bar, but it is the right thing,” she said. “There is no downside. It is the right thing to do. It can be painful when you have to get honest with where you are.”

Opt-out option

Not all have agreed with this view of PARCC and other student assessments.

On Sept. 16, the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education recommended that district staff create an “opt-out kit” to help guide parents who want to take their children out of standardized testing.

The kit, available on APS’ website and in schools, includes an opt-out form, testing schedule and information on the purpose of each test.

During recent discussions of the kit, APS board members were critical of assessments.

Barbara Petersen said she was “speechless at the thought of what we do to our young children” after touching on the testing that begins in kindergarten.

Steven Michael Quezada said he has never heard a teacher express support for PARCC.

“There is a pretty good feeling on this board that we need some change and that we need to start concentrating on teachers and supporting teachers and students,” he said.

Skandera responded Thursday that she has “a civil rights reaction” to the opt-out movement because, historically, the students who have skipped testing have most often been low-income minorities.

“The kids that we needed to know the most about were the least present,” she said. “Shame on us if we go back. … If you care about our state and our communities and what is possible when it comes to our outcomes and our future, everyone should be front and center on this issue. Period. End of story.”

Skandera also stressed that APS needs to adhere to state and federal law, which says 95 percent of students who are capable of completing certain assessments must take them. Schools that fall below this benchmark risk a loss of funding and a drop in school grade.

APS board members have argued that the Supreme Court gave parents the right to remove their children from sex education classes, so opting out of standardized testing follows similar logic.

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