A new state testing standard that's supposed to better spotlight students' academic growth could mean bad — or good — news for schools barely meeting No Child Left Behind standards.
The standard is going to slightly lower the number of elementary pupils scoring at acceptable levels on the language arts core curriculum test (CRT). It will increase the number of students passing elementary math and high school language arts, according to an analysis conducted for the State Office of Education.
High school CRT math scores would be unaffected, since standards for the subject were set last year, state testing officials said.
The bubble represents only slight differences in data, state testing director Judy Park said. But it still could push schools already barely passing muster over the edge.
That makes some education officials nervous.
"We'll probably have some principals upset . . . and yes, there are going to be some comparison problems, and there are going to be issues at the end of the whole process on who made it and who didn't," said Reed Spencer, who oversees assessment in Ogden School District. "But we had to make some of these adjustments."
CRT scores were released online Friday as part of the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students, or U-PASS (see accompanying story).
The scores will be used in next month's No Child Left Behind reports. Districts are just going through their reports to make sure everything's accurate before they're released to the public, Park said.
No Child Left Behind aims to spotlight students who need extra help and spur schools into giving it to them. Its goal is to have all children score on grade level by 2014.
Every school in the country is tracked by adequate yearly progress (AYP) reports. Basically, to make AYP, every group of students, including those with disabilities or non-English-speaking backgrounds, has to do well on language arts and math. Schools must include 95 percent of students in the testing. If any one student group misses the mark on any one of 40 criteria, the whole school fails to make AYP.
AYP reports are well publicized and controversial. Last year, one-third of Utah's some 820 schools didn't make AYP — 85 because of participation under 95 percent.
Many education officials condemned the reports as unfair. At the same time, they see value in using test score data to improve lessons.
Standards changed a little this year to fine-tune the testing tool.
Formerly, every test had its own scoring benchmark, some in the 50 percent range, others in the 80 percent range, depending on how hard the test was.
That made it hard to tell whether students' test scores really were getting better or worse from year to year.
So last July, the State Office of Education worked with the tests in what's called a "standard validation process" to align everyone's scoring benchmark without really raising or lowering the bar. That way, schools could better account for student growth.
"We want to make sure what we're doing is getting meaningful information . . . to help us improve education for our children," associate state superintendent Ray Timothy said.
Because standards changed, this year's CRTs can't be compared to last year's, state officials say.
But federal officials will do it anyway.
State testing chief Judy Park said the data differences probably won't change AYP reports much. But, she added, schools already close to the line could feel the impact.
Under old standards, the number of students scoring at acceptable levels on elementary language arts this year would have risen by just under a half of a percentage point. But the new standards will decrease the number by 0.86 of a percentage point, according to an analysis conducted for the State Office of Education.
The effect is the opposite in other subjects and grade levels. The number of students scoring at acceptable levels on elementary math would have risen by 3.6 percentage points under the old standard; the new standard bumps them up by 5.6 percentage points. Average numbers of students passing the secondary school language arts tests would have increased by 2.3 percentage points; the new standard turns that into a 5.5 percentage point growth.
District testing directors and superintendents have been kept abreast of the changes.
"They're concerned — everyone wants to look the best they can," Park said.
Still, she and Spencer are trying to keep the end goal in mind.
"We believe there is more validity in a statewide model looking at growth and improvement than AYP that looks at . . . one point in time."