Reading & Literacy

Poor Math Scores Posted on Unusual 3-State Exams

By Andrew Trotter — March 14, 2008 4 min read
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New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont education officials are seeking to mobilize to improve math instruction following surprisingly poor results on their jointly developed statewide assessments of 11th graders, on which fewer than a third of students scored proficient or higher in math.

The assessments, given last October, are part of the New England Common Assessment Program, an effort that began in 2005 with the development of reading and math assessments, known as NECAPs, for grades 3-8 and writing assessments for grades 5 and 8. Results from all three states were released within the past month, the most recent of them this week.

The math test, developed with input from teachers in the three states, is based on what students are expected to know at the end of 10th grade.

In New Hampshire, 29 percent of students scored proficient or better, including 2 percent who scored “proficient with distinction.” But 45 percent of the state’s 11th graders scored “substantially below proficient” on the math test.

Math results in Rhode Island were even worse, with 22 percent proficient or better in math. In Vermont, 30 percent were proficient or better, based on the test.

In the other tested subjects, writing also proved difficult. Only 33 percent of New Hampshire 11th graders scored at least proficient. Rhode Island did a little better, with 37 percent scoring proficient or higher. Vermont’s 11th graders posted the best showing, with 39 percent scoring at least proficient.

The relative bright spot was reading, with proficiency attained by 67 percent of New Hampshire’s and Vermont’s 11th graders, and by 61 percent of their peers in Rhode Island.

Public reaction was measured, officials said. In New Hampshire, for example, both educators and the public were reacting with “great concern about the results, particularly the results of 11th grade math,” said Theodore E. Comstock, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, in Concord,N.H.

“I would label it as concern about the scores, and concern that we need to improve, and that we need to improve in a deliberate, studied fashion, refocus on professional development and differentiated instruction,” he said.

But he said that NECAPs collaborative process “is sound,” and that it would likely “bear good fruit in the future.”

Used for AYP

The tri-state collaboration was financed with grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

The tests will be used to measure whether students in the schools and school districts are making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The law requires that all students be proficient on state tests in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Considerable debate is taking place nationally over whether states have dumbed down their definitions of proficiency to avoid having excessively high numbers of schools fail to make AYP.

But education officials in the three states said the tests were meant to be challenging—and the results prove that they are. “My point is, we nailed a pretty high proficiency standard that was clearly nonremedial college placement,” said Peter McWalters, Rhode Island’s schools chief.

In the wake of the math results, he said, “the test items have been mapped to and checked across everything,” to determine why 11th graders fared so poorly. His conclusion is that the results are valid and have “exposed the systemic issues,” such as the need for high schools to have the state’s academic-content standards “back-mapped into every single thing you teach in high school.”

Another reason that Mr. McWalters cited is persistent tracking of students into higher and lower math levels.

Michael L. Hock, Vermont’s director of educational assessment, said high schools have had little opportunity to adjust their programs to the new math tests’ expectations. “I would be really upset if I was sure kids had been taught what the state test measures and did poorly,” he said.

Officials took some consolation that no state looked markedly better than the others on the math assessment. “Actually, it’s kind of confirming that all three states came out the same,” said Deborah B. Wiswell, the administrator for accountability for the New Hampshire Department of Education.

The NECAP process is the only way the three small states could have afforded to develop their own tests of such high quality, Mr. McWalters added. Having teachers involved in creating the assessments also gave them credibility, he said.

“If we hadn’t used the process we used to create this stuff, it would have been terrible,” he said.

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a nonprofit standards-advocacy group based in Washington, said the NECAP assessments have much to recommend them. Established by governors and business leaders, Achieve supports state efforts to align high school policies with the demands of postsecondary education and the workplace.

“This is a test that begins to look at a college-ready test—this is one of the first times we’ve had this at the 11th grade level,” Mr. Cohen said, adding that it represents “an early effort to get an honest assessment of how well kids are prepared for postsecondary experiences.”

As required by the federal NCLB law, this May the three states plan to administer the NECAP science assessment in grades 4, 8, and 11.

A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 2008 edition of Education Week

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