LEARNING CURVE: Standardized tests in 2021

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NIXA, Mo. – Students are beginning to take standardized tests in Missouri again. Only this time, their results won’t make schools miss out on funding or recognition. Instead, districts across the state will focus on how students are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. This change comes after the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) cancelled its required tests last spring.

Ozarks First reporter David Chasanov spoke with a Nixa Public Schools family before their fifth grade daughter began her week of in-person testing on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Kyree Wake, who takes virtual classes, said she was excited to go back to Inman Intermediate to see her friends.

Nixa Public Schools family

“I haven’t got to see them,” Wake said. “I’ve only got to see them on Zoom. I’m really excited for that, but I’m not excited for the MAP [Missouri Assessment Program] test.”

In the past, standardized tests have made Wake nervous. She says it factored into her grades.

“I always think if I don’t do this right or correctly, then I might have to repeat the grade or something,” Wake said.

Even if Wake’s results won’t necessarily matter this year, the thought of taking tests again was twice as stressful for her.

“Since this has all been going on and stuff, it’ll be scary to go inside a school,” Wake said. “I haven’t went in there for like two years.”

Wake’s mother Crystal says DESE should be more accommodating during an unusual school year.

“There’s been kids that have missed weeks and weeks, sometimes a month of school,” Crystal said. “Teachers really need to have that time to make up with those students rather than ‘okay, this is how we take the MAP tests. These are good study tips.’ That time can be used better.”

Crystal referred to a survey conducted by the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) in December of 2020.  MSTA surveyed 6,000 educators to see who wants to suspend standardized tests during the pandemic. 94 percent said they were in favor.

Missouri State Teachers Association

Executive Director and CEO of the Association Bruce Moe spoke with Ozarks First after MSTA went public with its results.

“We were expecting those results, but not with the overwhelming numbers that we saw,” Moe said. “94 percent is a pretty large majority, and I think that’s compelling. I think that goes to really explaining how much teachers are passionate about this issue, and how important they think it is.”

Moe said teachers who responded to the survey said they needed more instructional time with their students. Crystal Wake is actually studying to become an educator, and she says this shows the state isn’t listening to people like her.

Nixa Public Schools family cont.

“There’s a lot of things that could’ve improved whenever I was in school,” Crystal said. “Nothing is going to change unless people are coming in to help facilitate the changes.”

Even if Crystal’s daughter’s results won’t be used for state or federal accountability, she says they’ll be inaccurate anyway.

“You have strong readers, you have weak readers, Crystal said. “There’s just too much variability in the way a student’s mind works to get accurate data from such a one-size-fits-all test.”

Nixa Public Schools

But, district testing coordinator for Nixa Public Schools Josh Chastain says the data will help schools moving forward.

“To look at their growth, look at their success, look at their room for growth,” Chastain said. “We want to make sure that we’re able to show our community the hard work that we put into our school year. We want students to be able to say ‘this is an opportunity to show what I have learned throughout the school year, and that will continue to support me and my success in education.”

Chastain says Nixa will look at its results as a snapshot of what its students have done throughout the year. Several ‘snapshots’ are taken per year via formative assessments, and then the district has a summit assessment.

“It’s important to know that it’s just a snapshot, it isn’t something that we hang our hat on,” Chastain said. “It isn’t something that we finalize and say ‘this is the only measure of what Nixa Public Schools does with regards to instruction. But it’s a snapshot that says ‘you did a great job’ or we need to make some tweaks here and there. And we’re going to continue on for next year.”

He says the biggest challenge for the district this testing season is making sure its 500 virtual students come to school for its MAP or End-of-Course (EOC) tests. 

“Safety and security is our utmost concern, and it has been since we started school this school year,” Chastain said. “We want to make sure that personal connections with our families helps them feel safe when they come in.”

Students can take tests in their teacher’s classroom, but in rare cases, the district will offer something else if needed. Aside from safety, Chastain says Nixa feels prepared for its tests this year.

“We feel very confident in what we do each year,” Chastain said. “We want to make sure that we can see that picture to say ‘great job. We know that you’ve done a great job and that our students have received an excellent education.”

Nixa starts preparing for standardized tests when the school year begins.

“We feel that the MAP test, the EOC test are vitally important for our district,” Chastain said.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE)

Deputy Commissioner of Learning Services at DESE Dr. Tracy Hinds says taking tests this year is the right move.

“We have also heard that parents want to know how their students are doing even through this pandemic,” Dr. Hinds said. “We are really providing flexible situations for our districts.”

Examples include:

– Shortening exam time by up to 25 percent.

– Extending its testing window to June 15, 2021.

– Seven-business day window for content areas in EOC test removed.

– Target participation rate drops from 95 to 85 percent.

“These flexibilities will help our districts and help our teachers and help our parents understand that we want our students to be successful,” Dr. Hinds said. “We want to provide more structures for our parents to feel safe bringing their students to take these assessments.”

She says DESE wants to see where its students are at, and the standardized tests will serve as data points. Those data points will help DESE understand what additional supports and resources need to be provided to students and districts across the state.

“Things have been different,” Dr. Hinds said. “We anticipate there may be some differences with how students respond to the assessment. But that’s what we are really trying to explore. We really want to see how these different instruction modes have impacted student learning.”

Dr. Hinds thanks parents across Missouri for adapting during the school year, especially those who have virtual learners. She says parents have been more engaged in the instruction process than ever before.  

“I cannot underscore enough how much we have supported our educators, our parents, who have really leaned into this new timeframe,” Dr. Hinds said. “It takes a collective spirit and effort from everyone and we can’t be more excited about the collaboration that has existed during this timeframe. We continue to encourage this collaboration as we progress on through the upcoming school year.”

Willard Public Schools

Assistant Superintendent of Academics Shane Dublin says he feels optimistic about standardized tests this year. Willard has been in-seated for five days a week since August of 2020.

“We really have seen growth in our student’s learning,” Dublin said. “Teachers and students, principals have been working really hard all year long to ensure the kids are learning. We’re excited to show what we know on the state assessment.”

Just like Nixa, Dublin says Willard uses the results as one checkpoint along the way to determine how students are learning. The district has students take the NWEA (or MAP), Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) and classroom assessments every year.

“With the state standardized tests, it can help us guide instruction,” Dublin said. “What we do going into next year, see what standards we can really celebrate and what other standards we might need to continue to work on.”

Just like in past years, Dublin says he feels students can walk into this year’s tests confident and positive.

“Really just attack the test like they would any test, and just know that they’re ready,” Dublin said. “We’re confident in them, their teachers and principals are confident in them and really they can come to school just like any assessment. Ready to take that test.”

Springfield Public Schools

For students who don’t, or didn’t feel ready, Deputy Superintendent of SPS Academics Dr. Nicole Holt says a test score won’t define you.

“Any teacher in our system would say ‘I can tell you a million things about any of those students that had absolutely nothing to do with what their score’s going to be on a standardized assessment,” Dr. Holt said.

SPS has prepared for testing all year despite its varied learning modes for various grade levels. It teaches students the standards.

“Many of our sites are eager this spring to have that measure,” Dr. Holt said. “We obviously have appreciated our partnership with DESE and that they’re making some accomodations around testing to give our educators more flexibility as we think about testing students in the midst of a pandemic.”

The district teaches students about the tools they’ll use when taking digital assessments. It also uses informal teasting measures to see where students are at. It’s implemented in situations where teachers are seeing learning gaps in their classroom, or even when kids are meeting the standards.

“Teachers are just really intentional to know those kids by name and that list by name and be able to provide the right kind of supports,” Dr. Holt said.

Regardless of its preparedness, Dr. Holt says the district expects to see some form of decline in test results.

“What we always tell families, what we always tell kids, what we always remember is this is one measure of one student at one point in time,” Dr. Holt said. “We would never use that for a blanket approach across everyone. It is an accountability metric though that we use and will look at and it will guide our next steps as far as how we plan instructions for students.”

SPS will also continue to use end-time assessments to provide additional data points for students. Just under 20 percent of the district are full-time virtual learners. SPS works collaboratively with its virtual team at LAUNCH and its site administrators. Each building has a site testing coordinator.

“We’re going to offer flexibility to our families that are full-time virtual,” Dr. Holt said. “Giving them access to our buildings to come in seated at various times. Maintaining all social distancing practices, masking, etc. But working with them at a convenient time to get those students into our sites to be tested.”

For parents or students who are unhappy with having to take tests this year, Dr. Holt says it’s for a good reason.

“We want to know what you know so that our teachers can be better prepared to meet the needs of your students as they enter our buildings next fall,” Dr. Holt said.

Families with any questions, comments or concerns about the testing process are encouraged to reach out to SPS.

MAP Grade-level testing is from April 19-May 7. End-of-Course exams are from April 19-May 14. April 21 is District ACT testing, with April 28 as the makeup date.

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