(05/15/2009)
Lower student test scores expected

Harder new statewide assessment may cause results to fall nearly 40 percent, officials say

By Ry Rivard
Daily Mail staff
dailymail.com

State education officials are braced for lower scores as students across the state start filling in the bubbles on a more challenging standardized test next week.

The number of students earning "at or above mastery" scores on the state's year-end standardized test could decline by nearly 40 percent in some subjects, according to West Virginia Department of Education projections of student performance on this year's WESTEST.

Education officials expect that a new, harder statewide assessment will cause a substantial drop in the number of students it considers to have mastered what they are supposed to learn in school.

The changes will affect thousands of students in grades 3-11 who will take the test next week and receive the results this summer.

The WESTEST 2 is meant to evaluate students on a host of new skills, including critical thinking and problem solving, that the state is emphasizing as keys to competing in the global workforce.

State schools Superintendent Steve Paine said the test results will give teachers, parents and students a better idea of how state students stack up to their peers around the world.

"It's us versus Singapore, Taiwan, Finland, South Korea - those are the highest performing countries in the world right now," Paine said.

The changes to the WESTEST also come as school districts struggle to meet the standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Law.

No nationwide test was designated as the one states had to use to show they were meeting the federal standards. States even were allowed to write their own tests, as West Virginia did.

Paine said that gave some states incentive to low-ball state tests so they could show students were meeting the standards.

At the same time, the competition for jobs has only increased.

As a result, what students were being asked to show they knew on standardized tests could end up being less than what they really needed to have in their head.

One national study showed West Virginia with low student achievement on a national test called the NAEP when compared to other states. Yet the state was reporting many students with high scores on its own WESTEST.

"I think we had good content standards and objectives, but I think we needed to raise the bar," Paine said.

The WESTEST 2 is an attempt to measure how well teachers are teaching and students are learning to those new standards and objectives.

"They're not easy changes to make when you raise the bar in the system, but we absolutely know it's the right thing to do," Paine said.

Paine said he wants performance on the new WESTEST to be a good indicator of performance on an alphabet soup of national and international tests, including PISA, TIMSS and NAEP.

"We're trying to paint a much more consistent picture with those assessments so that parents of our students will be able to understand their children are performing not necessarily against a student in a neighboring school district but also against the leading school districts in our country and the leading countries in the world," Paine said.

In the meantime, parents, students and teachers could have a fit of pique over the test results.

Education officials project drops of more than 20, 30 and nearly 40 percent among students getting top scores in certain subjects.

Of the 19,620 fifth-graders who took the science portion of the WESTEST last year, 86 percent, or 16,777, were "at or above mastery," according to state education department records.

This year, the state projects that only 50.4 percent of fifth-graders will score "at or above mastery" on the WESTEST 2. That means if the same number of fifth-graders take the test this year, 6,899 fewer students will receive "at or above master" scores than in 2008.

Educators have been trying to prepare people for the new results for months. They say comparing testing data from the new and old WESTESTs would be like comparing apples to oranges.

To give examples of the sometimes drastic changes to the test, the education department has been running newspaper advertisements to show parents questions from both the old and new versions of the WESTEST for high school students.

On the old test, students were asked, "What type of graph is best used to demonstrate change over time?" and given four options.

On WESTEST 2, students will be asked to draw conclusions from a data table and predict a trend in a line graph that demonstrates changes over time.

This reflects how the state has changed both what it teaches and what it tests, said Jan Barth, the department of education's assessment director.

"It's no longer rote facts and regurgitation," Barth said. "It's thinking critically about the issues. It's being able to draw the policy differences. It's being able to analyze and apply what you know."

Barth helped prepare projected WESTEST 2 score results along with other educators, including state teachers. She emphasizes that the projected scores are just that, projections.

The state Board of Education will consider the projections at its Wednesday meeting, along with the scores it uses to judge student mastery. Officials plan to go back after the test to reexamine their projections and possibly make changes to the mastery scores.

At the same time, Paine is seeking a reprieve from the U.S. Education Department so that the state won't be punished for the drop in scores and fall out of compliance with No Child Left Behind, which requires schools to show yearly progress.

He said it doesn't make sense for the federal government to hold WESTEST 2 results up against the old test.

"It's not fair to take a much more rigorous test and plug the results into an old metric of accountability," Paine said.

He hopes the feds will let the state use this year's results to reestablish a baseline to measure progress by.

But in the meantime, parents, students and teachers are going to have a lot to learn after they get the results.

"It's about always trying to move forward and improve," Barth said. "The whole notion of constantly moving toward a higher goal is what education is about."

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