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August 20, 2013 8:23 am

Standardized tests don’t always reveal the complete story

Written by Tom Lawrence

Tests have been, and always will be, a crucial part of the educational process.

But they are like a street light on a dark corner:  They reveal some things, but not everything, and some of the images that are glimpsed can be obscured or greatly distorted.

So keep that in mind as you consider the fact that Powell students topped the statewide average in every subject at every grade level, with two exceptions, in the Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students (PAWS). We cheer for these positive results, but also keep a grain of salt handy.

Park County School District No. 1 Superintendent Kevin Mitchell said he was pleased with the results.

“Powell’s doing just fine,” he told the Tribune. “We have a couple little hiccups, but they’re not at a rate that’s alarming, and it’s not a trend.”

Indeed, local kids fared better than most across Wyoming, as statewide scores fell in every grade level and subject in 2013 compared to 2012. Meanwhile Powell showed gains in some areas — topping the state average by 15 percentage points or more in some fields — and was stable in others, while some areas showed a drop in scores.

Mitchell, like many educators, doesn’t feel one test can determine the truth. It’s like that street light: A single lamp doesn’t provide all the illumination we need.

Instead, Powell relies on multiple test scores, the assessment of the trained and dedicated professionals in our schools and other resources to properly gauge how a student is doing.

Still, we’re glad to see Powell students doing so well once again. Not surprised, not with Powell’s sterling reputation, but gratified.

Some of the highlights include:

Powell scored 94.7 at proficient or advanced in fifth-grade math, compared to 79.5 at the state level. That’s a 5.5 percent increase from 2012.

Those same fifth-grade students were assessed as 89.5 percent proficient or advanced in reading. The state average was 72.6 percent.

However, there was a troubling note as well.

Only 41.9 percent of eighth-graders tested either proficient or advanced in science, which means 58.1 percent of Powell eighth-graders tested at the basic or below level. The statewide average was 44.1 percent proficient or advanced.

There’s an important factor to consider while reading the scores, according to Mitchell and Deb Lindsey, Wyoming Department of Education’s director of assessment.

The testing process has changed a great deal in recent years, causing some to question the value of the tests. In 2010, there was so much trouble all scores were discarded. The process has evolved since that time, and not necessarily for the best, as what students are tested for does not always match with what they are being taught.

Science teachers are asked to instruct in such a manner that students can be tested to meet Wyoming State Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core Standards. That’s simply absurd.

“Each of these changes can affect student performance,” according to Lindsey.

Mitchell said it’s a “real struggle” to deal with the tests when the process remains in flux.

Mitchell, an old hand at giving and assessing tests, is not alone in having questions and doubts about the process. According to an essay on the ASCD website (a group once known as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), standardized testing remains a highly controversial topic.

“Educators should definitely be held accountable. The teaching of a nation’s children is too important to be left unmonitored,” it states. “But to evaluate educational quality by using the wrong assessment instruments is a subversion of good sense. Although educators need to produce valid evidence regarding their effectiveness, standardized achievement tests are the wrong tools for the task.”

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