How do students measure up? A look at Stillwater Area Schools test scores and what they mean

District-ISD-834--Stillwater-Area-Schools-LogoOne of the most recognized ways to determine a school district’s effectiveness at educating children is to analysis the standardized tests scores for students. While the Stillwater School District continues to score higher than the state average yearly, there is room for improvement in the coming school years.

“The purpose of standardized testing is that it provides a measure of how students are performing across schools and geographical areas,” said Ryan Laager, executive director of curriculum for Stillwater Area Schools. “It gives a snap shot of how kids are performing on that day of testing.”

Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) is administered to students in reading in grades 3-8 and 10, mathematics in grades 3-8 and 11, and science in grades 5, 8, and high school. School and district results of the MCA are used for school and district accountability under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“What we think is a better measure of student success is the Multiple Measurement Ratings (MMR) to track a student’s growth over years, instead of just how they may have preformed on one day,” Laager said.

The MMR rating and the Adequate Yearly Progress scores are calculated by the MCA results, and are used to compare schools and districts across the state.

According to the district’s Adequate Yearly Progress data report compiled by the Minnesota Department of Education, in 2013 the total percentage of students reaching the math achievement standards in Stillwater Area Schools was 73.5 percent. Statewide, 60.6 percent of students reached math standards.

In 2013, 70.8 percent of students in Stillwater Area Schools reached reading standards, with 57.9 percent of students statewide meeting standards.

The scores from the 2013 testing year were lower than scores from 2012. In the Stillwater district, 74.9 percent of students met math standards in 2012, with 61.7 percent of students statewide meeting standards.

Due to changes in testing, the 2013 drop in students meeting the reading proficiency targets was more significant. In 2012, 85.9 percent of students in the Stillwater School District met reading standards — that’s 15.1 percentage points higher than 2013 scores. However the state total reading score was 75.6 percent in 2012, 17.7 percentage points higher than in 2013.

“In 2013, there was a change to the standardized tests in reading,” Laager said. “While it does appear that Stillwater’s test scores in reading have lowered dramatically in 2013, we are actually 5.3 percent higher than the state average.”

The new tests are difficult to compare to previous results, because they have different standards and questions.

Laager said the state’s department of education uses a pilot program to test the standardized exam before it is used statewide, but some questions can be worded poorly and are difficult to understand. “There will be times with a new test that questions are worded in a confusing way, and the question is answered wrong by a majority of students,” Laager said. “It’s then when a question will get reworked for a future test.”

Also difficult for school districts is implementing curriculum that covers information that will be in a new test.

“We work on a six-year curriculum cycle,” Laager said. “We have ways to make small changes to yearly curriculum if we know there will be new information on the standardized tests.”

Achievement Gap

Even with overall high testing scores, several demographics found in the Stillwater School District score disproportionately lower than the average.

“A lot of factors affect a student’s ability to achieve and meet standards,” Laager said. “A large body of research points to three factors — parental education, socioeconomic level and parental involvement in their child’s education.”

Laager pointed to the predominately white and affluent population where the Stillwater district resides.

“Washington County is one of the wealthiest areas in the state, a mostly white population, and home to a highly skilled and educated workforce,” Laager said. “These are external factors that create the rich history of education. Education has always been highly valued in this area.”

To measure the achievement gap in a school district, the Minnesota Department of Education requires students to list their gender, race and economic information on their test material. To determine a lower economic level, the state asks if the student receives a free or reduced-cost lunch.

As an example of the achievement gap in economic levels, the total percentage of students reaching the 2013 standards for the sixth-grade math test in Stillwater Area Schools was 68.4 percent. For students who identified themselves as receiving free or reduced-cost lunch, the percentage of students meeting standards was only 48.1 percent, a 20.3 percentage point difference.

“An example of this gap in a social studies class is if the lesson was on Washington, D.C.,” Laager said. “A student that was able to afford a trip to the nation’s capital would better understand the lesson than a student that has never been able to travel there. The traveler would have a better context to understand the history after having seen the location.”

Laager said that students without a stable home structure are at a significant disadvantage to learning compared to their peers with a stable home.

“If students don’t have a place to sleep, food to eat or parents to be involved in their education, their academics are not going to be a priority,” Laager said.

Schools that have a higher percentage of free or reduced-cost lunch recipients qualify for funding from the federal government through Title I, as a “way to level the playing field” for economically disadvantaged students, Laager said.

“Title I funding uses the free-and-reduced-lunch program as a way to identify schools with a poorer demographic, and gives the district money to provide staff and programs to help struggling students,” Laager said.

Racial bias

The achievement gap also applies when comparing students and their self-identified race; a problem the education system has been aware of for years.

To again use the example of the 2013 sixth-grade math test in Stillwater Area Schools, test scores show differences in achievement if separated by race.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, in 2013 there were 526 white sixth-grade students, 17 Hispanic students, 26 black students, and 28 Asian students in the Stillwater district. In the group of students who identified their race as white, 70.9 percent math standards. In the group of students who identified their race as Asian, 64.3 percent met standards.

In the group of students who identified their race as black, 46.2 percent met standards. In the group of students who identified their race as Hispanic, 35.3 percent met standards.

“We know that through test scores, we can see questions that have a racial bias,” Laager said. “For one student that grows up in the culture of a middle class white family, the way they interpret a phrase or situation could be very different than the way a student could if they grew up in a middle class black, Asian, or Hispanic culture.”

The concept being tested is not conveyed because of a cultural difference, Laager said, and that is a question with a racial bias.

“We try to avoid questions with a bias, but one person in one culture won’t know how something is interpreted in another,” Laager said.

To combat racial bias and to train teachers and staff to support students with a different cultural background, the Stillwater district is a member of the East Metro Integration District (EMID).

“The goal of EMID is no longer to integrate students, but to close the achievement gap,” said school board member George Hoeppner at the board’s June 12 meeting.

This year, the school district was given funding from EMID to start a Spanish-speaking parent class to help parents support their students through a sometimes confusing school system. Twenty-four families participated in the program at Lake Elmo Elementary School, with plans to expand the program to other schools in the coming years.

Test scores and class size

During the March 27 school board meeting, parents were concerned to hear that, due to budget cuts, class sizes next year will be anywhere from 30-35 students, with Stonebridge and Lily Lake topping the list at 35 in some grade levels. Many have spoken during school board meetings that more students will decrease one-on-one time with the teacher and cause test scores to fall further.

According to Adequate Yearly Progress achievement scores, the elementary school with the highest percentage meeting standards in math was Withrow Elementary School, with 95 percent meeting standards. Stonebridge Elementary School, which has larger-than average class sizes, was at the bottom of the math proficiency ratings, with 79.96 percent of students meeting math standards. Lily Lake, another school faced with larger class sizes, had 81.03 percent meeting standards.

Both Withrow Elementary and Marine Elementary (with a score of 91.55 percent) have smaller class sizes and scored higher than charter school St. Croix Preparatory Academy, which had 91.53 percent of its elementary students achieving state standards in math.

While there appears to be a correlation between class size and test scores in the district, Laager stressed that the quality of the teacher more greatly influences learning. He does not believe that class size alone will cause dramatic decreases in test scores and student achievement.

“There is very little research that indicates that class size has an effect on testing until classes get (down to) 10 to 12 students,” Laager said. “It has to do with the quality of the teacher. It’s better to have 32 students in a class with a good teacher than to have 25 students in a class with an average teacher.”

Laager cites Professor John A. Hattie, head of the Department of Education at the University of Melbourne, and his 2008 book, “Visible Learning.” In the book Hattie outlines the Hattie Effect Size list, a scale based on his research of influences on learning. For some influences, Hattie gives a higher score of importance; student-teacher relationships at 0.72, and home environment at 0.57. Influences of lesser importance to learning — class size at 0.21, and charter schools at 0.2 — Hattie gives a lower score.

“We don’t want an unmanageable amount of students in a classroom, and we will go as low as we can in class size,” Laager said.

Big picture

While standardized testing is important to the district and state, Laager said it is not the perfect measure of a student’s abilities.

“We hear more and more that we, as a society, push our students,” Laager said. “While it is good to push yourself, it is important to remember that testing is one snap shot in time.”

Testing and achievement scores are only one indicator of the success of a student.

“There are many people that are very bright, but lack creativity and communication skills,” Laager said. “Everyone wants a measure, but learning is a progression over time.”

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]