By Kirk Maltais
The cause and effect of standardized testing in Virginia.
According to a national report released this week, Virginia students outperform their peers nationwide in science, with 38 percent testing “proficient” in the subject.
The report from The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which examined the scores of eighth graders nationwide, shows that 38 percent had a “proficient” score in science-related standardized testing, compared to 34 percent in 2009. Two percent of the students documented scored at the “advanced” level.
Also detailed in the report, entitled “The Nation’s Report Card,” 33 percent of eighth graders scored at a “basic” level, with another 27 percent scoring below basic. The report examined sciences including life science, physical science, and earth/space science.
These numbers trump the national average, 29 percent of students showing proficient scores.
The report defines proficiency as “solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter.” Basic level is defined as “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.”
Charles Pyle, Director of Communications for the Virginia Department of Education (DOE), sees a work in progress with these results.
“Certainly, 40 percent meeting the national standard for proficiency is not where we want to be, but we see progress with an increasing percentage of eighth graders able to meet this rigorous standard,” says Pyle. He notes that the standard of proficiency is where the DOE “wants our students to be, in terms of mastery of content.”
Overall, there are a number of encouraging findings to take away from these results. Nationwide, no state showed a decline in student’s test scores, with Virginia being one of 16 states noted for having a clear improvement in this area. Also noticeable is the narrowing of the racial gap of scores. Students of all races showed improved test scores, with Hispanics showing the biggest improvement.
Also noteworthy is the diminishing gap between students of different income levels. Students eligible for free and reduced-price school lunch scored noticeably better than in 2009, although the amount of students eligible for these programs have increased since then. Pyle says that overall, working with the schools that have a lot of students that fall into these gaps has been a priority.
“The performance of students in our lowest performing schools has been the focus of much of the Department of Education’s work since the beginning of the SOL (Standards of Learning) program,” says Pyle. “The way you deal with those achievement gaps is that you have to work with the students that are lagging behind, which means you have to work with the schools that they attend. It’s not one program, there’s no silver bullet.”
The report from the NAEP is not the only evidence of Virginia’s higher proficiency in science. A study released by the American Institute of Physics last year ranked Virginia 6th on their Science and Engineering Readiness Index (SERI), which compiles applicable data to determine how schools are preparing students for careers in science and engineering. Massachusetts topped the list, while Mississippi was on the bottom. The findings of the group suggested that much still needed to be done nationwide, as 21 states checked with below average scores, with only 10 showing higher than average.
Overall, what do all of these findings really mean? While the statistics as reported by the NAEP show a positive trend in student’s learning of science, some organizations question the value of standardized testing as a tool for measuring the academic growth of students.
Pyle says that a method of determining how success on K-12 standardized tests translates into success with higher education is in the early stages of being crafted by the DOE.
“Linking data from high ed and K-12 is not something that is easily done,” says Pyle,”But we’re in the very early stages of doing this. So we’ll be able to develop reports in the future that can answer a lot of these questions. Multiple choice tests are a valid way to measure student learning.”
While Pyle acknowledges that the DOE has instituted more open answer questions to better gauge student’s learning in subjects, questions remain about their effectiveness. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, there are many ways that school systems can manipulate the testing system, thus not painting a truly honest picture of student’s academic progress. According to FairTest, schools can manipulate certain aspects of test taking environment in such a way that students can be supplied the correct answers during the test (leaving helpful posters on the walls, etc.) FairTest also alleges that teachers with students on the bubble of passing the test are likely to concentrate more on tutoring these students, spending less time with students well above or under passing level.
There is also the basic issue of whether or not “teaching to the test” is in actuality detrimental to the education process. According to a release by FairTest, “Teaching to the test also narrows the curriculum, forcing teachers and students to concentrate on memorization of isolated facts, instead of developing fundamental and higher order abilities.” Supporters of standardized testing argue that teaching students how to take the test has a benefit to their test-taking abilities, which serve to be useful as they progress in their education.
According to the US Department of Education, “if teachers cover subject matter required by the standards and teach it well, then students will master the material on which they will be tested–and probably much more.”
“As far as ‘teaching to the test’ is concerned, they can’t really teach to the test,” says Pyle. “Teacher’s aren’t given a test and told ‘teach these questions’ or ‘have the kids memorize the answers to these questions.’” Pyle contends that anyone that were to look at the questions on the SOL’s would conclude that the questions that are asked are “kind of what you expect to be taught.”
While the debate over standardized testing is still raging, the good news for Virginia is that the state consistently finds itself in the top tier of academic performance nationwide, and with the state budget proposals allowing for more funding for schools, it stands to reason that this upward trend shall continue in the state, perhaps closing the gaps in performance as time moves forward.