Brett McFadden: Perspectives on student testing and scores |

Brett McFadden: Perspectives on student testing and scores

Brett McFadden

The development of public policy, whether at the local, regional, or national levels, will often be controversial. Public education, itself a large policy forum, is not immune from this phenomena.

One education topic that can sometimes spark controversy is student testing and academic achievement scores. Since this topic seems to crop up every once and a while, I thought I would shed some light on it from a local perspective.

Whether we like it or not, our public education systems need to have academic assessments so that our educational agencies are accountable to taxpayers and parents. We also utilize them to gauge how our local schools are doing according to specific state-approved benchmarks and standards. Ultimately, the data derived from statewide academic assessments influences the outcome of state and national educational policies and programs.

The challenge for educators and community members is to make sure we give student test scores and associated data their appropriate focus.

Student academic assessments are critically important, but they are not the only measures of whether a student will succeed in life. There are other, equally critical, traits that contribute to student success that can’t be easily tested. One of these is an individual’s grit. There are students who don’t excel on standardized assessments, but they receive good grades because they work hard, study efficiently, put in the time and effort, and go on to succeed in college, their chosen careers, and their lives as a whole.

Yet tests are an important component to gauge how we are doing as educational institutions.

I am happy and proud to report that the Nevada Joint Union High School District is doing better than most districts in California. But I believe we can do better.

A few years ago, we noticed scores dropping three years in a row. In response, we convened all high school administrators and pointedly asked, “Why is this? And what is behind it?”

After some courageous conversations and analysis, we refocused and recommitted our attention to effective instructional practices and professional learning communities. We now emphasize properly preparing students to succeed on these tests, and we’re once again seeing results.

Today’s primary assessment test is the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress or CAASPP.

In English-Language Arts last year, 68.8 percent of our district’s students met or exceeded state standards, compared to 57.3 percent statewide. Our 2019 score was higher than the 61.7 percent of students who met or exceeded state standards in 2018.

It should be noted that the district’s average of students who met or exceeded state standards includes strong showings from our comprehensive high schools such as Nevada Union (72.8 percent), Bear River (82.4 percent), and Ghidotti Early College High School (100 percent). But the district’s average was adversely affected by the score at our continuation/alternative Silver Springs High School (7.1 percent).

Those trends are similar in math test scores.

“We are moving in the right direction as a district in terms of refining our curriculum and instructional practices,” says district assistant superintendent Dan Frisella. “Our faculty are currently working through the Professional Learning Communities process of clearly identifying essential learning outcomes that are aligned to standards, creating common assessments which tell us whether students have learned those standards, and lastly, intervening when they do not.”

Our high school district is also investigating the financial feasibility of a new bell schedule that would allow us to incorporate intervention time into the school day.   

“It is no secret that testing is challenging when it is performed as an autopsy for the state, with no real incentive for students to perform to the best of their ability,” says Nevada Union Assistant Principal Luke Browning.

Thanks to our generous community (Grass Valley Kiwanis, Lazy Dog Ice Cream, Horace Mann and others); we have been able to provide external incentives to students so they will be more inclined to take the tests seriously.

“Teachers receive a list of students who met or exceeded standards on previous tests, and give those students raffle tickets,” explains Luke. “Students put their tickets in the ‘Golden Wheel,’ from which there are daily drawings. Once testing begins, teachers hand out more tickets to students who are taking the test seriously and those are also entered in the raffle.”

The result? More students are actively engaged in taking the tests and the district’s overall participation rates have increased.

I’ve been asked why students who choose to pursue a vocation immediately after high school must take standardized tests. Aurora Thompson, our district’s Director of Career Technical Education, explains:

“I feel strongly that CTE offerings should expand a student’s future career options and overall knowledge base, but should never be a reason for limiting a student’s academic growth and skill mastery. This would have the inadvertent effect of closing the doors of opportunity for a given student, rather than opening them.” 

Among inherent weaknesses of California’s standardized testing policy is the fact only high school juniors are tested each spring, and we don’t receive complete results until December of those students’ senior year. For that cadre of students, it’s literally too late to make adjustments to curriculum and instruction.

That is why our district is now working to develop our own assessment strategies for 9th and 10th grade students in a unique way. Through our teachers’ Professional Learning Communities, each department is developing individual benchmark assessments so we can assess whether learning outcomes have been reached. Teachers share what works and which practices can be improved.

Our test scores are improving even as we confront the challenges of an increasing number of students with special education needs and difficulties associated with our growing low socio-economic population. Earlier I noted our lower results at Silver Springs High School. Staff and leaders at the school have been working diligently to implement new restorative practices to help address challenges many Silver Springs’ students face each day outside of the classroom.

Unfortunately, household income remains a leading indicator of academic performance nationwide. The simple fact is that there are huge disparities in the academic opportunities available to wealthy vs. low-income families. We call this the income achievement gap.

Students in lower-income households are less likely to have access to learning-rich environments in the home and early care settings. Higher-income parents can invest more time and financial resources in their student’s education and provide a home that is cognitively stimulating, such as reading to their children, using a more broad vocabulary, and offering tutoring, enrichment camps, and extracurricular programs.

Money plays a role in the school setting as well as in the home. Wealthy counties in our state receive a far greater share of educational resources than districts such as ours. It’s an inequitable system based on wealth. On top of all that, California schools are funded at a level that places us a dismal 41st in the nation. Until these systemic inequities are addressed in Sacramento, our schools will continue to fight an uphill battle.

Despite the obstacles, we must ensure we give our students instruction on a range of skills, so they are competitive in their chosen careers and life pursuits.

It is clear test scores and associated data have their place in a broad spectrum of gauging how we are preparing students. Amid lockdowns, PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoffs, and other emergencies and distractions, our high school district will continue to provide optimal instruction so our students succeed not just on tests, but in life.

Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett W. McFadden writes a monthly column for The Union. He has more than 28 years of education leadership and policy experience statewide. Freelance writer Lorraine Jewett contributed to this column.

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