The results of the state’s standardized tests are in, and Teton County School District No. 1 students outpaced the state average in almost every category. Even as they celebrated a rosy overall picture, district administrators said the scores don’t tell the complete picture and are only one representation of student success.
Now in its second year, the Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress, WY-TOPP, is taken solely in digital format, replacing older tests that incorporated some form of essay writing and multiple-choice questions answered on lined paper or fill-in-the-bubble sheets. WY-TOPP tests students in grades three through 10 in English and math, and those in grades four, eight and 10 in science.
Familiarity with the format was part of a statewide increase in test scores, Wyoming Department of Education officials said.
“Everybody got more comfortable with the online platform,” said Laurie Hernandez, who leads the state division of standards and assessment. “We’re seeing benefit from the consistency.”
Teton County public school students saw improvement over last year in some grades and subjects and regressed in others. Even though state Education Department statisticians put in lots of work to meld the WY-TOPP statistics with those of the previous test, Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming, school district officials said it was too early to interpret trends from the data.
“For me as an educator, I’d like to see more data, like, three, four years,” district Superintendent Gillian Chapman said.
A ‘tenacious’ gap
Though WY-TOPP results are not the only measure of student success, they can indicate trends that help teachers shift what they are doing in the classroom. Similar to last year, a significant disparity existed between white and Hispanic students.
At Jackson Hole Middle School that discrepancy ranged from 34 to 46 percentage points. Last year the largest achievement gap at the school, 58 percentage points, was in eighth grade math, but as with all the other scores, the reduction in the largest gap cannot be taken as a trend, and many of the disparities in other grades and subjects at the school are similar to last year.
The split doesn’t surprise district administrators.
“We continue to have an opportunity gap,” district Coordinator of Assessment and Data Karen Wattenmaker said. “It’s tenacious, and it’s across the state and across the country. We have taken a long look at it over the last year.”
Racial disparity in standardized testing is not solely a Teton County problem. Studies into nationwide results have found that white students outperform almost all racial minorities because of the way tests are written. Standardized tests, particularly those in English language arts, don’t simply evaluate reading comprehension or writing skills. Instead they incorporate background knowledge and vocabulary some groups of students may not have, which skews scores.
For instance, one SAT question that was referenced in a 2015 study on cultural bias in assessments published in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy used the word “regatta,” a term the study said African-American students were far less likely to know than their white counterparts, making them more apt to answer the question incorrectly.
The study says test scores are normed using the knowledge of majority group populations, putting minority students at a disadvantage.
“If the cultural or linguistic backgrounds of the individuals being tested are not adequately represented in the norming group,” the study says, “the validity and reliability of the test are questionable when used with such individuals.”
What that means for Teton County students is that many Hispanic students struggle with the test. Not all Hispanic students scored poorly on WY-TOPP, since they are not monolithic, but much of the disparity can be attributed to the language gap, Wattenmaker said. Students who enter the English Language Learner program take five to seven years to become proficient in their second language, so it could take most of their schooling to build the requisite vocabulary and background knowledge to bridge the divide.
For evidence of that, Wattenmaker pointed to the district’s breakdown of the Hispanic population. Those who had recently entered the district system and were just beginning to learn English fared worse than kids who had gone through the program. The gap between students who had graduated from the ELL program and their white counterparts was much smaller than that of the overall Hispanic population.
“I think if we had more opportunity and time to work with them,” she said, “then we would really be assessing what they know versus language skills.”
Just one measure
Imagine you are a fifth grader sitting down to take your WY-TOPP exam. You want to do well, so you spend your time on each question. The minutes start to add up, and because the test doesn’t have a time limit, pretty soon you’ve spent four hours at the computer.
Chapman said many district students found themselves in that situation this year, taking three, sometimes four hours to finish the assessment. With the fatigue that can set in during that long of a test, the bias built into WY-TOPP and the real chance that students might simply sleep poorly the night before the test, district administrators say poor results are not reason enough to make wholesale changes to instruction.
“We really want to be cautious, even though we triangulate around these kind of big summative assessments,” Wattenmaker said. “The push is for daily instruction and daily assessments.”
To help teachers identify areas for improvement, the state provides interim assessments, of which students take two throughout the year.
The fall and interim assessment gives teachers a benchmark for their students and a way to track progress throughout the year. Modular exams, which focus on particular skills — writing, for instance — also allow teachers to evaluate their classes’ progress.
Those smaller assessments may end up being more helpful to teachers.
“Some of these things that help the teacher see where the student is now and then,” Chapman said, “also help us decide do we need to put some supports in place and work with the student on a very specific area.”
Chapman said the district would focus on the aggregate test scores in looking at how it can improve.
She also applauded the students who stuck it out for hours at the computer and said the intrinsic qualities they showed in completing the test may be just as important as the overall scores.
“Individual kids might have a bad day,” she said. “The kids really have to persevere on this, and it’s a lesson in grit.
“Those are tough skills, so I think an awareness of that is important.”