Students face new tests

Posted: Tuesday, June 05, 2001

Students better enjoy their summer vacation while they can, because the grown-ups are plotting more work for them starting next fall.

The latest results of the Alaska High School Graduation Quali-fying Exam, better known as the exit exam, have arrived. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District mailed scores to parents at the end of last week.

About 45 percent of peninsula teens taking the high-stakes tests at the end of February passed all sections.

The pressure on next year's seniors and juniors is less than it was, because the Legislature voted this spring to postpone requiring the tests for graduation for two more years. That means this fall's sophomores will be the first who must pass to earn diplomas.

But for students in all grades, more standardized testing lies ahead.

"The state is really stepping up the amount of testing that will be done," said Mark Leal, the district's director of assessments.

The district also received results of the Alaska Benchmark tests for grades three, six and eight. Schools will give those results to parents in the fall, Leal said.

Although the individual exit exam test scores have been reported, what they mean for the district as a whole remains unclear. Some information, specifically the class- by-class breakdown of scores, will not be available until August.

"It's just a real mixed bag of kids," Leal said.

When the students took the most recent version of the three-part test, sophomores taking it for the first time sat alongside juniors taking it for the second or third time. Others taking the test were juniors new to the state or absent on previous test dates. Educators want to know how those who failed sections previously and took them again fared compared to the first-timers.

"That's the big issue for me right now," Leal said.

This year's percentages of students passing came in slightly lower than the first round of the test a year before, with the notable exception of the mathematics sections, which has given students the greatest difficulty.

This round, the district's pass rate was 73 percent for the reading section, 45 percent for the writing and 45 percent for mathematics. Pass rates for the state as a whole are not yet available.

The first time the test was given, in March of 2000, the pass rates for the district were 79 percent for reading, 49 percent for writing and 38 percent for mathematics. The state averages were from 1 to 5 percent lower. Results were not available until August 2000, when school began again.

The second testing session was held in October 2000 with results issued in mid-December. All students tested were juniors who had missed or failed one or more sections of the previous test. The district pass rates were 54 percent for reading, 26 percent for writing and 24 percent for math. Again, district pass rates were the same as or slightly above state averages.

The large numbers of students who failed one or more sections of the test on the first go-round prompted intervention from educators around Alaska, especially regarding the mathematics section, which is under review at the state level. On the Kenai Peninsula, schools have promoted special courses, tutoring, summer programs and enrollment in more challenging math classes.

"I know that a number of schools made changes and got students into more rigorous classes," Leal said.

The exit exams are part of a statewide education reform called the Quality Schools Initiative. Another aspect is the Alaska Benchmark Examinations.

The benchmarks are designed to measure whether younger students are meeting state learning standards and on track to pass the high school exams. The tests debuted in the 1999-00 school year, and were given to students for the second time at the end of February.

The district averages showed a majority of students scoring as proficient in reading and writing at the three grade levels and in mathematics for grades three and six. The percentages passing were the same or within a few percentage points of last year's.

For the second year, 46 percent of eighth-graders scored in the "proficient" or "advanced" categories.

The other students are classified as "below proficient" or "not proficient."

"Below proficient is really within striking distance of getting proficient. ... The not proficient are really far away and need some intervention," Leal said.

He cautioned it is premature to seek trends in the two years of benchmark data. The children tested were different, and the grading for each test was set up by a different committee.

"Each cut score was set independently," he said. "It has a lot to do with where the cut scores were."

Evidence suggests the math teachers who worked on the upper grade math exams set more demanding standards than their counterparts for the other tests, he said.

"It is my belief they set a higher cut score for the high school and eighth grade," Leal said.

"I'm not saying that is necessarily wrong, but it gets in the way of us making comparisons."

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and CTB/McGraw-Hill, the publishing company which creates and grades the tests, plan to modify the them so the scores will be comparable in the future, he said.

"That methodology has not been unveiled yet. McGraw-Hill just got the contract," Leal said.

Next year, the district's youngest students will get junior versions of standardized tests. The programs, which have been piloted at 14 schools around the district, will go into all primary schools next year.

"We are, as a district, adding some reading and literary assessment at the level of kindergarten through third grade," Leal said. "The tests will show what areas students need to work on to be fluent readers by the time they are in third grade."

Students also will face a new state-mandated standardized test called the Terra Nova Complete Battery. It replaces the California Achievement Test, called the CAT/5, which Alaska has used for six years.

Going to the third national standardized test in less than a decade makes it difficult for Alaska districts to track long-term trends, he said. And the new test will take more time for students to do.

But Leal said he has looked over the new test and it has some solid advantages. It is another McGraw-Hill product, which should allow for better cross-referencing with the other tests, and it covers relevant material more completely, he said.

"It is going to give us a wealth of information," he said.

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