Test Scores: The Best Beginning

Test Scores: The Best Beginning
Bob and Lois Settles

The idea that one may dissociate the teacher from what his/her students learn is a fundamental denial of professional responsibility. If teachers can’t be held responsible for what their assigned students learn, the schools become child-care facilities responsible only for their safety.  If a school functions at that level it is no longer an educational facility.  

Union opposition to tests to measure what students learn has never made any sense. While many influences interact within each student individually, each school’s responsible agent for student learning is the classroom teacher for one or more periods of instruction every day. Most teachers take this responsibility seriously, and most would profit from the systematic evaluation and feedback of what his/her students learn each year.

The main difficulty with opponents of testing in schools is that they have little or no experience with any well designed, school-wide studies which actually use test results.  Very few folks within most schools are test literate, and the vast majority of annual test results are filed away and forgotten.  It need not be this way, but that is the historic path followed by many schools.

Whether the content is English, math, science, or social studies, testing provides the measure of learning (growth, achievement) in each of these content areas. All other focal points within the schools are secondary in importance to student learning.

In part because of the above, a comprehensive study using tests in school was designed and applied by University of Georgia faculty, and the administration in two Georgia combined elementary/middle schools.   Classroom teachers were an integral part of this research project.  In preparing annual reports all student test results, using a nationally standardized achievement test, were expressed as grade equivalent scores, the most readily understandable format for teachers and parents alike.

Using this format, an individual student in the third grade whose scores improve from 3.0 to 4.0 during the year has learned a year’s worth of content.  This student was on grade level at the beginning of the year, and was still on grade level for the fourth grade. His or her growth is +1.0 year, exactly what is expected of the average student using national norms.

All individual student’s growth scores were recorded for each subject area, and were combined for each classroom (section, teacher), grade level, and for the school overall.  As there were multiple classes at all grade levels, individual teachers were not readily identifiable.  School-wide annual reports were prepared and presented to all professional staff for their information, feedback, and future planning.

The overall school results the first year of this project were most startling, and had a clear message with implications for grade levels, content areas, system-wide policies, and for one individual classroom teacher.  The highlights of these findings are presented below.

Figure 1
School growth by content area on the ITBS (n=428) image001

The reference point on this and all figures is the 1 in the left margin, which indicates a full year of growth, learning or achievement.  Bars below the 1-line suggest falling behind during the year, while those above this line did better than expected.  The content areas are shown on the baseline of the figure.  From left to right these content areas are reading, language, work-study, math, computation, social studies, and science.

Each bar represents the overall performance for the school, the school average in each content area.  It is clear that most areas did not grow as expected, with the exception being science (+1.30), an outstanding average level of growth for the school overall.  This pattern of highs and lows becomes the focus for the school’s curriculum, staff development, text book selection, and possibly other school-wide issues.

Figure 2
Reading growth by grade level

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Figure 2 shows grade-level reading growth.  The very low grade 1 growth scores are based upon a small number of students who repeated first grade.  Clearly these students did little better the second year than they did the first, suggesting the need to examine retention policies school-wide.  The third grade students’ growth in reading is a serious deficiency, as this represents four separate classrooms.  This is probably the first red flag to be raised, as the performance of the teachers in the third grade overall in reading merits special attention.  The students in grades 2, 4, and 5 are doing reasonably well by comparison.

Figure 3
Growth in Social Studies by Section

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Classroom performance averages in social studies are shown in figure 3.  As may be seen classrooms 4B and 5B both performed in outstanding fashion.  By contrast all third grade level classes in social studies performed very poorly, particularly section 3B, whose students at the end of this year did worse than the previous year.  This is a second red flag for the third grade overall, and for section 3B in particular.

Figure 4 shows individual classroom performance in science.

Figure 4
Growth in Science by Section
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Somewhat surprisingly, every single classroom in science performed above the national norms with the sole exception of classroom 3A.  Section 3B, whose students lost ground in social studies, learned far better than all other sections in the school except for section 5B.

For one classroom of students to perform so poorly in one subject and so well in another subject is suspicious at best.  This performance at the extremes by an entire class of students deserves administrative follow-up.  In preparation for this follow-up the pattern of student learning in classroom 3B was reviewed and is shown in figure 5.

Figure 5
Student learning in classroom 3B
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Because of the need to explain such extreme performance in a self-contained classroom, the administrator discussed these results with the teacher.  Her enthusiasm for and enjoyment of science was clearly evident.  No doubt this was a major stimulus for her students’ outstanding learning in science.  This enthusiasm may have rubbed off on the other third grade teachers.  When asked to explain her students’ performance in social studies, she said she did not spend much time on that content area. Every indication from the test scores is that she diverted social studies time, and probably time from other subjects, to teaching science.  Her students’ performance in every subject, other than science, is simply inadequate.

One additional issue adds color to the above school-wide findings.  In an austerity effort during this year, the school system decided it would purchase half as many text books as needed to cover the students in science and social studies.  Half the students took science first, and half took social studies first. Instruction was then condensed into half a year for each subject so all students would have a text book.

This strategy may have several consequences.  Each teacher and his/her students are covering an entire year of work in half-a-year, which requires allotting twice the usual time and teaching twice the material each day. During the second half of each year the students switch subjects, and again are confronted with twice the information each day.  If this austerity plan suppressed learning in social studies, it did so only in the third grade.  By contrast learning in science certainly did not suffer as a result of this text-book shuffle.

These findings show that testing students for achievement may produce diagnostic keys to the learning environment of a school including the following:

a) Overall strengths and weaknesses of the school,
b) The need to examine retention policies,
c) Issues with grade level and individual teacher’s performance,
d) The implications of system-wide text book selection and policies,
e) The influence of taking time from one subject to enhance another.

While teacher 3B probably diverted instructional time to science, an alternate remedy could assign her to science instruction for all third grade classes.  This would draw upon the teacher’s enthusiasm for science, and allow the other third grade teachers to improving instruction in the other subject areas.

A great deal has been said about the nation’s failing schools, and specifically the belief that the great divide in education is primarily between the rich and the poor.  To the contrary the gap in learning comes primarily from students who wish to learn what a school offers.  In this study, teacher 3B’s strength and enthusiasm is in science, and that is what her students learned.  This teacher’s students did not do so well in the other subjects because that was not offered.

This gap in learning was identified because it was tested within an individual class in a single year in an elementary school.  For the students this learning “spurt” was not of their choosing, but of their teacher’s. It probably created a deficit in learning in their other subjects, which may, or not be overcome in subsequent years.  For students who are not interested in learning what the school offers, these students should be guided into more diverse subjects of interest.

Bob Settles was in the Counselor Education Department, College of Education at the University of Georgia for 27 years.

Lois Settles was an elementary school principal in Clarke, Jackson, and Winder-Barrow Counties in Georgia.

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