OREM — Utah students spend a significant amount of time marking up answer sheets in the name of assessing their learning — the state core test, the Stanford Achievement Test, benchmark tests — all in addition to the normal exams at the end of a course of study.
When all is said and done, and numbers have been generated, the results can reveal how well a particular student is doing.
But are they effective in telling how well a school is doing as a whole? Or a school district? The man responsible for crunching numbers for the Alpine School District said the reams of information he sifts through each year are helpful, but imperfect.
For example, it's difficult to compare the performance of children taking math in third grade with seventh-graders learning algebra, said John Jesse, director of research and evaluation. Creating tests that are statistically comparable for children of different ages who are learning different disciplines is difficult and costly.
"Right now, really our only ability is to take the third-graders and look at their scores versus the state averages," Jesse said. "Then we can look at the same group as fourth-graders the next year and see how they did against the rest of the state. Immediately, you're faced with the fact that this isn't the same group of kids because you've had transfers, but it's the best comparison."
In the Alpine District, like the rest of the state, math scores on the state core test drop as students move into higher grades. Does that mean math is being taught poorly in junior high and high school? Or is it a natural outgrowth of math concepts growing ever more complex?
It can be both, and much more. Most Alpine schools, which stretch from Orem to the Point of the Mountain, have now adopted the district's controversial decision to use "standards-based" mathematics instruction, in part because of a belief that the system wasn't working and children were struggling with higher math concepts because of weaknesses in the elementary school curriculum.
Deseret News graphic
Alpine Test Scores
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Better test-score data would help answer those kinds of questions, Jesse said. It would help if teachers and administrators could pick up a test and compare a 70 in third-grade math with a 70 in seventh-grade math.
"Then we could say, 'Gosh, what's happened between third and seventh grade?' " Jesse said.
Testing is moving slowly to address the issue. "It's a big shift," Jesse said. "Education wasn't data-driven, and it takes a while to move an organization as large as education in any direction."
As it stands, however, test results can pinpoint some problems. Math scores at Lakeridge Junior High School in Orem dropped low enough in 2001 that a school council of administrators, teachers and parents began working to deal with the problem.
"That is a great example of where data has led to some school interventions," Jesse said. "They've implemented some changes and so it's a good example of how a school can use data to improve."
In the meantime, Alpine is a couple of years into its implementation of "Math Investigations" and "Connected Math." Some parents call the programs "fuzzy math." The district believes test scores in secondary schools will improve in the long term because the new programs will strengthen students' understanding of math concepts.
"That was the impetus behind moving to standards-based math," said Jerri Mortensen, the district's spokesperson. "The reason we adopted these standards-based programs was because our test scores were falling as kids moved into higher math."
Mortensen said the district found that rote memorization skills weren't translating well to the real problems or word problems that seem to stump so many students in higher math.
"We definitely believe the Investigations program creates a deeper understanding of the concepts, which enables students to solve problems at a more complex level," said Gary Seastrand, Alpine's assistant superintendent for K-6.
With the increased emphasis on tests and the data they generate, plus the federal and state legislation that demand certain standards, Alpine's new math program ratchets up the pressure on teachers who already were feeling it.
"There's a lot of pressure nowadays in education, and teachers are feeling a lot of stress about it," Seastrand said. "There's been a serious increase in the expectations."
Districts and teachers are familiarizing themselves with the state core curriculum and teaching to the end-of-the-year core test in an effort to meet those expectations. Seastrand said teaching to the test isn't a negative in this case, because the state has identified that information as exactly what students must be learning.
"We're emphasizing that knowledge in our instruction," Seastrand said. "I think teachers are responding very well given the nature of the stress associated with high-stakes testing."
Jesse said Alpine noticed a problem in test scores in science about five years ago. The district was significantly below the state average. New emphasis on teaching to the state core has raised those scores.
"We're making tremendous strides," Jesse said.
However, the real value of those improvements will get a new test next year.
"Next year we'll get a new science core in the state," Jesse said. "It will be really interesting to see how that data look during that transition."