Average scores from Wyoming’s new standardized test show an academic achievement gap between white and Hispanic students in Teton County that mirrors national trends.
Factors like language acquisition, poverty, and the educational, social and cultural capital of students and their parents can perpetuate the gap, said Colter Elementary School Principal Bo Miller. Many Hispanic students — 80 percent of kindergartners at Colter, for example — qualify as English Language Learners. Testing often isn’t designed for students who can’t understand academic vocabulary in their second language.
Administrators at each school in the district met last week to go over school improvement plans and come up with strategies to close the gap and increase test scores overall, although most grades and subject areas outpaced Wyoming averages (see graph).
Many schools are focusing on teacher collaboration called professional learning communities, or PLCs, and Superintendent Gillian Chapman said more appropriately sized elementary schools with smaller classes will help.
Working together in small groups, principals called the gap in their buildings “a massive discrepancy” and “concerning” during the Oct. 10 workshop.
There was an average 32 percent difference between white and Latino students scores in reading and a 44 percent gap in math at Jackson Elementary School, something Principal Tracy Poduska said she wants to address holistically by taking a look at students’ home lives.
Colter Elementary School saw a 36 percent disparity in reading and a 46 percent gap in math, while Munger Mountain Elementary School saw a 43 percent gap in reading and a 34 percent difference in math.
“We’re trying to close that gap,” said Scott Eastman, principal at Munger Mountain. “We know that they’re coming in to school with that gap.”
Alta, Kelly and Moran elementary schools and Summit Innovations School have too small of student populations to release that information without compromising the confidentiality of a student’s academic record.
Jackson Hole Middle School disparities are portrayed in a graph attached to this story. Jackson Hole High School saw disparities that ranged from 17 to 42 percent depending on the grade and subject area tested.
The assessment, abbreviated as WY-TOPP, tests students in grades three through 10 in English and math, and students in grades four, eight and 10 in science. The achievement gap, calculated by looking at the difference between the percentage of proficient students in each category, doesn’t always represent every student.
“I do want to emphasize that’s an average and that we have very high-performing Hispanic students, and we have very high-performing white students,” said high school principal Scott Crisp.
“On average, yes, there’s a difference, but I think it’s always important to look beyond averages to get the full story of what’s happening, or what can happen is a profile can be established for all students based off their ethnicity, which is not necessarily a fair portrayal,” he said.
In grades nine and 10, for example, high school Hispanic students scored above the state average for their demographic and at or above the state average for all students.
Crisp thinks he’ll see long-term results in scores and school culture by improving how connected students feel to each other and to teachers.
“When students feel connected, regardless of their background, when students feel like they belong, they typically do better,” he said.
Not scoring in the “proficient” category doesn’t necessarily reflect a student’s knowledge.
“Sometimes a student has missed one or two questions,” Chapman said. “I don’t want students or parents or teachers to be disappointed with any individual score. It’s a piece of data that can tell us where a student is and what areas we need to focus on. We’re committed to that, but it’s just one measure in a kid’s day.”
Teachers in all buildings are analyzing results down to specific questions on the test. For example, a lot of first-graders missed a question asking them to draw a box around the “capital” letter — because they were learning the language “uppercase” letter instead.
“That’s how focused we are and how focused our staff have been,” Chapman said.Multiple changes to test format
Not including some minor bandwidth issues and normal glitches that occurred, Chapman said, the new testing format went off without a hitch last spring.
“There wasn’t anything major,” she said. “If it was, people were handling it really well because I didn’t know about it.”
Chapman liked changes to the test, including a later testing window that incorporated more instruction and the addition of interim assessments that can be used for practice throughout the year.
In addition to being taken online, saving the state a conservative estimate of about $2 million a year, WY-TOPP was unique because it’s what’s called an “adaptive test.” That means depending on a student’s answer to a question, the following questions change in difficulty level.
One challenge, Chapman said, was the length of the test. Contrary to the Wyoming Department of Education’s assertion that it took less time in the classroom, the test took two, three or four times as much time as the state estimated it should in Teton County schools.
“That was pretty intense for them,” she said. “Testing stamina in grades three through eight is definitely an issue for students. The problems are complex, so it really showed they were hanging in there and giving it their best shot.”
Due to the format changes, this year’s data can really only be viewed in isolation since WY-TOPP is so different from the previous test, PAWS. But Chapman said she’s looking forward to seeing longitudinal trends moving forward.
“We have some real celebrations,” she said. “I think our scores are strong.”
While the vast majority of grades outperformed the state average on all subjects tested, she highlighted district-wide 3rd grade math and 4th grade reading as particular accomplishments.
“I would say we’re making gains in all areas, and I’m really proud of that,” she said. “We’re going to keep after it. It’s one measure, it doesn’t make up the whole person. We’re going to keep our focus on the state standards and ensuring all of our students have access to the high quality instruction we offer.”