Clarke County Public School students, parents and teachers got their first public look at Standards of Learning math test results last week. The test results showed a significant decline in “pass” rates for Clarke County’s kids and may have some parents and students wondering what caused the poor performance and, more importantly, what needs to be done to improve student math skills.
The CCPS SOL math results, which include a nearly 70% decline in overall pass rates for some student groups, is a reflection of the Virginia Department of Education’s (VDOE) 2009 revision of the Commonwealth’s mathematics achievement standards. This year’s test results reflect an increased rigor of the new curriculum as well as new testing approaches.
“Historically, new tests that measure new standards have brought significant decreases in scores,” said CCPS Director of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Lisa Floyd. “Students are used to using multiple choice test taking strategies – working backward, eliminating answers, educated guessing. These are important test strategies but they are not the foundation of teaching in Clarke County.”
Instead, Floyd continued, the new online versions of the math SOLs require test takers to demonstrate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills in ways that were not possible with traditional multiple-choice tests.
Technology-enhanced questions, which make up about 15% of the test, are designed to reflect classroom instruction, such as ordering information correctly, creating graphs from data, plotting points on a grid and highlighting features on a diagram. The tests also include open-ended, fill-in-the blank problems that can have multiple correct answers.
“These are not the multiple choice tests that your father took,” said CCPS Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy.
According to statistics Floyd released at last Monday’s Clarke County School Board meeting, the new testing approach is having a big impact on students.
“Last year, Boyce scored a 98% pass rate for 5th grade Math with 76% scoring ‘Pass – Advanced’,” Floyd told School Board members. “This year, the score fell to 29% pass rate with not a single student scoring a ‘Pass – Advanced’ at Boyce.”
Floyd said students at DG Cooley performed similarly.
“Last year students at Cooley scored an 82% pass rate for 5th grade Math with 61% scoring ‘Pass – Advanced’. This year scores fell to 45% pass rate with only 3% of students scoring ‘Pass – Advanced’” Floyd said.
The new math tests, as well as similar changes in reading and history, are part of Virginia’s response to the problem that U.S. students are falling behind their international peers in the areas of math, reading and science. The problem gained came to national prominence in 2010 when the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administered a test known as the Program for International Student Assessment to groups of 15-year-old students in the world’s major industrial countries.
The results were startling.
The PISA test results demonstrated that students in Shanghai, China out performed every other industrialized nation in the world in the areas of math, science and reading. The same Pisa test placed US students 17th overall in reading, 23rd in science and a distant 32nd place in math.
“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview with the New York Times referring to the test results. “I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”
While the new the instructional approaches are intended to improve Virginia student math, science and reading skills, educational professionals across the state have also been bracing the public over the last two years for what many believed was the inevitable drop in test results now being seen. Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright warned that this year’s math SOL results would become the future baseline data for measuring improvement.
“If pass rates fall,” Wright told Virginia’s General Assembly in January “it is a sign that the state is expecting more, not that students are learning less.”
According to VDOE’s testing data, the approximately 24,000 students who took geometry, Algebra I and Algebra II tests during December and January prior to the introduction of the new approach scored 27 points above that of students taking the current test.
But despite the poor overall scoring averages, VDOE is not yet ready to concede that its pass-rate goals are necessarily too high. Students in 20 Virginia schools that took the December and January tests still achieved pass rates of 80 percent or higher.
So even though success is possible, school superintendents, who are on the frontline when it comes to addressing citizen reaction to lower test scores, have been cautious to embrace the new teaching and testing approach.
“What are we doing to our students and teachers by jumping so high so quickly?” said James Merrill, chief of Virginia Beach schools, in an interview with Gannett’s Newsleader.com
In April, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents went so far as to request a “grace period” so that initial math scores would not count and allow teachers to adjust to the higher expectations.
While Clarke County school administrators and teachers agree that the new testing and instructional methods will simply take some time to get used, additional problems that contributed to the low test scores were also discussed at Monday night’s School Board.
“We’ve been asking for a textbook fund for years,” Murphy said.
Johnson Williams Middle School math instructor Dennis Sandala added that his students had been frustrated during SOL math practice sessions because VDOE had only provided fourteen examples of the computer-based technology-enhanced questions.
“You can only practice so much with so few sample problems,” Sandala lamented.
For Clarke County, Dr. Floyd says that the goal is to still try and meet VDOE’s pass-rate expectations despite initial low pass-rate performance.
“Achieving those pass-rates is still our goal,” Floyd said in response to a question from School Board member Dr. Elizabeth Leffel (Buckmarsh) about whether or not the division’s improvement goals were realistic given the poor level of student test results.
Floyd said that the change in learning standards has increased rigor at all at all grade levels as the format of the SOL assessments shifted from basic knowledge to application at all grade levels. She also said that the new instructional materials have present teachers at all grade levels with new challenges as they work to gain proficiency.
Floyd said that the division actually started its implementation of the new math standards almost two years ago when several CCPS instructors attended special VDOE-sponsored training sessions. Those instructors then returned to Clarke County to train other staff members.
Floyd said that CCPS will continue to use a range of tools to improve its math instruction including math word walls in classrooms, implementing math data walls for teacher use, professional learning opportunities, use benchmark data to adjust instructional delivery based on student needs, video feedback tools for teachers and improved accountability measures for subgroups.