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Dec. 9, 2022

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Do standardized school tests pass or fail in Clark County?

Teachers, administrators question value of exams as students struggle to recover from pandemic’s fallout

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

On par with the rest of the state, Clark County students’ test scores fell dramatically in 2021. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“We can’t burn our candle at both ends. We were spread too thin,” said Nichole Johnson, eighth-grade English and literature teacher at Jefferson Middle School in Vancouver.

For many teachers, the top priority upon the return to in-person education wasn’t academics. Glaring at them on that first day in August wasn’t a display of learning loss in math or reading; it was the toll that the pandemic had taken on their students’ social-emotional well-being.

And yet, changes made to Washington’s annual testing cycle still required schools to test students in English language arts, math and science within an October-November window.

Given all that teachers are tasked with introducing to their students at the beginning of a school year — let alone students who had spent the last year and a half going to school on a computer — Johnson couldn’t help but feel like implementing these tests was far from a priority.

“We were giving standardized tests to kids that not only experienced a global pandemic, but we were coming off of summer vacation,” Johnson said. “Giving a state test at the beginning of the school year, it just wasn’t appropriate in my mind. As teachers, we wouldn’t give a summative assessment at the beginning of the school year.”

Understanding the data

The COVID-19 pandemic canceled statewide standardized testing in 2020 and pushed 2021’s cycle, which is typically held in the spring, to the fall.

That meant that in addition to readjusting to in-person education after nearly two years of remote or hybrid learning, students and teachers had to quickly prepare for annual tests that determine how their school, district, county and state stack up.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal, anticipating the effect of a tumultuous year of hybrid, remote and in-person learning, submitted a federal waiver asking for the 2021 cycle to be done away with. When he and other state officials caught wind that the waiver might not be approved, Reykdal withdrew it and pushed for tests to be held in a more limited capacity in the fall.

“(Federal officials) were seeking to test as many students as possible this spring, and we know this approach did not support the mental health of Washington’s students; nor is it the best use of our limited in-person instructional hours this spring,” he said in a April 2021 press release.

Although the cycle was pushed to the fall, the chosen time frame still yielded unsatisfactory results that Reykdal — along with teachers and administrators from across Washington — say do not accurately reflect the true capability of the state’s students.

In Washington, the percentage of students meeting proficiency standards dropped 11.9 points in English language arts, 18.5 points in math and 0.9 point in science.

Significant portions of students — particularly in science — received “no scores,” meaning they didn’t even show up to take the tests: 8.8 percent of students taking English tests were marked “no score,” along with 8.9 percent in math and 24.3 percent in science.

Evergreen Public Schools — the largest district in Clark County — saw a 10.5 percentage point decrease in the number of students meeting proficiency standards in English language arts, a 16.4 point decrease in the number of students meeting proficiency standards in math and a 4.9 point increase in the number of students meeting proficiency standards in science.

Similar trends were observed in Vancouver Public Schools and Battle Ground Public Schools, the second- and third-largest districts in Clark County.

Vancouver students saw an 8.6 percentage point drop in English proficiency, a 16.4 point drop in math proficiency and a 7.1 point increase in science proficiency.

Battle Ground students saw a 9.1 percent drop in English proficiency, a 16.7 point drop in math proficiency and a 2 point decrease in science proficiency.

Learning from the results

Though the results were disappointing and even a bit shocking, district officials say they don’t feel much can be gleaned from analysis of these scores.

“Everything about the administration of those tests was done differently than what we’ve done before,” said David Cresap, the co-director of curriculum, instruction and assessment in Battle Ground Public Schools. “Students had spent the vast majority of the previous learning cycle in a remote setting versus in the classroom. There was an expectation that we probably wouldn’t even do these assessments, so when we found out we were going to do them, the level of preparation and getting our kids ready and excited — it just wasn’t the same.”

Typically, teachers take time during a handful of class periods throughout the year to familiarize students with the format of the test by running through practice exams and explaining how each section works. Tests in English and math — known as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC — are divided into sections: computer-based multiple choice and a prove-your-answer style of written response.

That explanation is particularly important for third-graders, Cresap said, as it’s usually their first time taking the test. This year, due to the shift, those taking the third-grade exams are now in fourth grade — so as to keep the expectations of the results based on a typical spring schedule.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the fall data is going to have asterisks,” Cresap said. “They’re not exactly the same they were before all those numbers have to be interpreted with context.”

Furthermore, that preparation takes more than just an understanding of the exams themselves, said Johnson of Jefferson Middle School. She said there needs to be a year of student-focused learning.

“Good teaching is not necessarily just test prep — you have to address standards throughout the year,” she said. “To speak to something else that could help them be better on these tests, I go back to the tests themselves. What are we trying to answer?”

Promising avenues in science

While Washington schools’ concerning drops in English and math certainly catch the eye, they may distract from the standout, unwavering nature of results on the Washington Comprehensive Assessment of Science, or WCAS.

“My role was to get students to come in and test, which at first was really challenging,” said Will Baur, a teacher at the Vancouver Virtual Learning Academy who previously taught eighth-grade science at River HomeLink, a K-12 hybrid learning school in Battle Ground Public Schools.

“A lot of students chose to stay at home, which explained low participation. But I found out later that I actually prepared my students quite well. What I attributed that to was that we had been field-testing OpenSciEd.”

Baur began using OpenSciEd — a free-to-use middle school science curriculum that focuses on real-life experiences through projects and group work — in 2018 when he started recognizing that he was struggling to keep students engaged in often complex or wordy science lessons.

“The projects are very student-focused,” Baur said. “That approach mirrored the state assessment, where students are given a scenario within science that features a lot of reading and group work. It was really driven by curiosity.”

OpenSciEd’s online features, as well as a brief measles outbreak that forced a stint with remote education, Baur said, provided him some experience with teaching over Zoom with strictly web-based materials.

In 2019, which was the first year that Baur’s students took the WCAS since using OpenSciEd, 65 percent of eighth-graders at River HomeLink met the standards for proficiency, a 12.5 percent increase from just 52.5 percent in the previous school year — each of these numbers including a large percentage of zeroes due to student absences.

Among eighth-grade River HomeLink students who were present to take the WCAS in 2019, 86.67 percent of them met proficiency standards.

Along with a familiarity with online curricula, Baur thinks that curricula like OpenSciEd prompts students to work in groups on topics with real-world application. Lots of reading can help students get reengaged with their classes after a long period without in-person socializing.

Going forward, he said he hopes that year-round education with programs like OpenSciEd can benefit students’ social-emotional health as well as their performance on the WCAS.

“There’s so many tests that students are taking in normal classes — for a lot of them, I’d say you have to be a really strong reader to do well on them,” he said. “So maybe it’s not a direct measurement for their abilities in science, but more so their ability to read through complex text.”

Sharpening focus

On March 7, the 2022 state testing window opened to Washington schools, which will have until June 10 to administer English language arts and math tests for grades three through eight and 10, 11 and 12.

For grades other than 11 and 12, tests are required by state and federal law. For those older students, however, passing these exams is one of eight graduation pathways that students in Washington can complete in addition to acquiring the necessary credits.

Now that students have eased back into in-person learning — despite a tumultuous January — Cresap and other district officials in Southwest Washington feel as if the 2022 cycle will be the first step in the right direction.

“The effort right now is just to get us back to normal,” Cresap said. “But it’s not going to happen in a week. It’s going to be really more like two to three years before we really get back to where we were before the pandemic.”

From a teacher’s perspective, Johnson said she and other teachers still feel as if more should be done to evaluate whether they’re the best use of classroom time, especially as teachers are still working to recoup for learning loss and emotional trauma that the pandemic wrought.

“We’ve had more time, but it’s still not enough. Testing has pushed everything back, in addition to everything else we’ve been tasked to do,” she said. “I feel like they’ve got a lot more learning under their belts, but I still don’t think students have been sufficiently prepared in comparison to other years.”

More emphasis on educating students about mental and emotional health and a more holistic evaluation process, Johnson said, will help students rebound in a better, more tangible way than rigid test preparation will.

“Tests are a snapshot in time, they’re not working with other people, they’re not allowed to have additional resources,” she said. “I don’t clearly see the purpose at this point; I get it in theory but I don’t get how they’re helpful in process. There are other questions we should be asking students right now.”

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