The most recent Smarter Balanced test scores presented both opportunities and challenges to local educators seeking to improve classroom instruction through analyzing the wealth of new achievement data.
Scores released last week from the previous year’s exam designed to gauge student comprehension of Common Core curriculum offer a much more detailed illustration of student learning than the previous testing system.
Though the county’s average marks were considerably higher than the rest of the state, local education officials are granted little time to celebrate, as their focus quickly turns to sifting through outcomes to identify room for improvement.
Brian Simmons, director of Curriculum and Assessment in the San Mateo Union High School District, said the richness of the new data grants a deeper resource to analyze than the scores from previous Standardized Testing And Reporting exams.
“We are learning a way to use this more complex data source that is not like what we used to get because of the nature of the information,” he said.
Increased familiarity offered by the second year of administering the test lent itself to more efficient analysis of the results, said Simmons, but the limited resources of some local school districts is a primary hurdle to overcome in the quest to fully unlock an understanding of the scores.
“It’s definitely going to take some time,” he said. “It’s the same as the implementation of Common Core. But we are making faster progress.”
Smarter Balanced tests are administered on computers and the system can adapt on the fly to offer progressively simpler or more difficult questions to accurately define the boundaries of a student’s capabilities.
Results offer a detailed analysis of how well students fared on specific elements of the test, designed to track analytical abilities in tandem with the lessons administered under Common Core.
Simmons said he believes the results are full of valuable information for an educator, but there is difficulty associated in unpacking the data and presenting it in a fashion useful for a teacher.
“The test isn’t just testing discreet skills, but a package of skills that are interrelated,” he said. “So it’s a more challenging data source.”
County help with interpretation
The County Office of Education has been a valuable asset for many districts attempting to make the most sense of the results, said Simmons, as it offers a centralized data collection and processing resource.
Gary Waddell, deputy superintendent of Instructional Services for the county Office of Education, said his organization established the Center for Data Analytics as a hub to which local districts can turn for assistance in dissecting the scores.
County officials designed the analytics center to take some weight off of local districts potentially overwhelmed by the task of digesting the past year’s scores while focusing on teaching a new crop of kids.
“We knew that would be a lift,” said Waddell, of the analysis effort. “There is a lot going on in a classroom and school at any given time, so we hope to bring that analytics expertise.”
Schools justifiably dedicate much of the first month of operations ensuring classes are operating as intended, said Waddell, so many officials are unable to dedicate their time or focus to understanding the results when they are freshest.
Waddell said a goal for officials is making the most sense of the results as soon as possible, because students who took the test last year are just now starting their next grade, offering educators a full year to address areas of improvement.
Work at the center can also be helpful in planning instructional services for the upcoming year, said Waddell, as county officials are able to view the analysis output through the lens of ways it can be blended with a district’s Local Control Accountability Plan, which sets programmatic and curriculum goals for the year.
“It’s a matter of how you take all the metrics and inform local planning to use that data meaningfully,” said Waddell.
Beyond the county’s work, Simmons suggested a partnership with a local technology company specializing in translating stockpiles of data could be a useful asset for a school district seeking to better understand the meaning of the results.
Anthony Ranii, superintendent of the Hillsborough City Elementary School District, said he has met with representatives from companies offering such services and has yet to find a program deserving of investment.
“It comes down to whether this is so much better than what we are doing to justify using the public’s money on this? And so far my determination has been no,” he said.
Ranii said rather than rely on services offered by the county or private companies, his district has a centralized fashion of sorting and analyzing the results then presenting them in a fashion useful to principals and teachers.
He said the dozens of hours spent in the district office crunching numbers and streamlining the process ultimately pays dividends, as those at the campus level are not swamped with the taxing work of sifting through numbers in the interest of improving their lessons.
“I don’t think it would be as effective if we asked the principals to create those tools,” he said.
Ranii noted though the test data can be useful in helping educators improve their craft, he was reluctant to weigh the standardized test results too heavily because such information is only one piece to a much larger puzzle of tracking student achievement.
Simmons echoed that same sentiment, and said the results are more useful when considered alongside a variety of other benchmarks, such as a student’s grades and their ability to meet state standards in core fields.
“We are doing what we can, in the context of a lot of other initiatives in the district, to bring useful information in a timely way,” he said.
But even with the commitment to better understand the test results, Simmons suggested it could take a few years for students to begin reaping the benefits of improved instruction generated from the analysis.
Ultimately, Waddell said the difficulties associated with interpreting the data set is the type of challenge educators enjoy overcoming.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “Common Core was a welcome shift, and we think this is providing a deeper understanding of our kids and what they are able to do.”
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