The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama provides a simple, color-coded look at how the children in grades 3 through 8 in Alabama’s schools perform on the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT). I shared the 2011 data analyses earlier this year, looking specifically at how Birmingham City schoolchildren performed in comparison to their peers in surrounding school systems.
The 2012 data (results from Spring 2012 testing) is available and I strongly encourage you to look at the analyses for your child’s school and system. Take the time to figure out what the color-coding means and the charts will make sense to you. Basically, you want to see a lot of dark green, and no dark red.
The dark green means that particular group of students is more than 10 points above the system or state average, as indicated by the block. Dark red means that particular group of students is more than 10 points below the system or state average. The shades of red and green indicate the range of where those students are performing within that school. Take a look at the school below. Look at the “Black (B)” students column. In grade 3, in Math (indicated by “M”, reading is indicated with an “R”), 23.1% of the students scored at Level IV on the ARMT (the benchmark is Level IV, exceeds expectations). This is more than 10 points below the other Black 3rd graders math test results in the system (35.0%) and more than 10 points below the other Black 3rd graders math test results in the state (47.6%). That earns this school two dark red blocks.
Then take a look at the 4th grade math results for Black students: 57.1% of those students scored at Level IV, which is more than 10 points higher than other Black 4th graders in the system (36.3%) and the state (46.7%). This earned two dark green blocks. Those particular results even earned them a gold shading in the Gap category, indicating that the gap between White and Black students in that grade, in that subject (14.3%) was lower than the state gap (18.5%).
Benchmarks Aren’t the Same for Students in Different Demographic and Poverty Groups
There is an inherent inequity in this data, and while that inequity is not exploited, it does bear mentioning: the benchmark that is used reflects that gap in achievement between white and black students and between children in poverty and those who are not in poverty. The gap that exists is anywhere between 18.5 and 32.5 percentage points. Why that gap exists is not the subject of this post. A quick search of the Internet will find many scholars’ and experts’ opinions (learned and otherwise) about why the Achievement Gap is so persistent and what can be done to rid our schools of the Gap.
In the system above, you can see that the actual existing Gap is actually anywhere between 28.7 and 36.9 percentage points.
You don’t have to be a statistician to understand what this data is telling us. And yes, it is telling us how students are performing on one standardized test on one day of a school year. And it is only one measure of performance, but for the moment, it’s the only objective measure we have from year to year.
The ALSDE is changing the entire assessment system to allow us a better look at growth and gaps and progress over time, and that is certainly a step in the right direction. But for now, this is the only method we have of looking at that snapshot of success. And let’s face it, standardized tests are a way of life for anyone progressing on to college and career.
What is causing a bit of concern is the ALSDE setting different benchmarks for students based on their race, poverty status, or disability status. Alabama’s benchmarks are the lowest I have seen of all of the ESEA Waiver requests.
I suppose it will take more than a few of us to express concern over the very low benchmarks and wide gaps among subgroups for the ALSDE or the feds to take notice. This subject, the wide range of benchmarks set under Alabama’s proposed ESEA waiver, deserves its own discussion. Stay tuned.
What You Can Do with PARCA’s Data
So let’s say you do go to the PARCA site and review your child’s school’s data. Let’s say that you are concerned about how many red blocks you see. What can you do?
The ALSDE has included the following in the ESEA Waiver request on the top of page 50 (my favorite parts are in red):
The new state accountability system will prompt all stakeholders to ask difficult questions about increasing academic achievement and raising instructional quality within Alabama‘s schools. An Accountability Delivery Plan will be developed that focuses on the implementation of the new ESEA Flexibility that will include the following:
1. Recognizing and embracing “collective ownership of the problems/struggles/achievements of public schools” by entire communities.
2. Increasing the transparency of the accountability system so that all stakeholders have access to and an understanding of the metrics utilized to measure system, school, and student success.
3. Creating professional development opportunities for teachers and leaders aligned with and descriptive of the new accountability system.
So obviously the ALSDE wants our school community to ask the tough questions of our school leaders, right? So we can all have “collective ownership” for success, right?
Take the time to share PARCA’s data with your school’s principal, school board members, and even the superintendent of your system. Here’s a link to data that PARCA has compiled over the past seven years (!) to show trends by subgroup. PARCA even breaks down the trends by school, not just systems.
And if your school’s and system’s PARCA data reflect above-average or stellar success, take the time to send an e-mail to your teachers and principals (and school board and superintendent!) and express that you are pleased. Acknowledging our school personnel’s efforts in ensuring children learn the material measured by the ARMT is absolutely necessary. It’s easy to pile on when test data is not good, but to step up and say thank you when the data is good is more difficult. We shouldn’t take great test scores for granted. It takes a lot of effort to show improvement and success on standardized tests. Let’s thank those who work so hard. They deserve our thanks.
There’s a nice way to inquire about these test results by simply sending an e-mail with a link to the results and ask for your school leaders’ thoughts on what the test data says. Or perhaps you could make an appointment to chat with your school’s principal or assistant principal.
The Questions You Could Ask
- Why are our scores at the level they are?
- How are you measuring progress from year to year?
- What are our teachers and school leaders doing to improve student achievement?
- What can I do to help improve achievement?
- What can our parent and family groups (PTAs and PTOs) do to help improve student achievement?
The Answers You Don’t Want to Hear
So you’ve shared the data with your school and system leaders, and you’re eager for a response. Be wary if any of the following responses are ones you hear:
- You don’t need to worry about the whole school’s data. Just look at how well did your child scored on the test.
- I can’t imagine why an outside agency would bother to analyze our test data.
- Standardized testing is not a reliable indicator of our students’ achievement.
- You are the only person who has mentioned this to me. Why are you concerned?
- There’s not much we can do for these children. They don’t have parents like you to help them.
- If we just had more money, we could really fix this problem.
A school leader who gives you any of these answers is being evasive and making excuses. A great school leader is going to appreciate your concern and will take your concerns seriously. A great school leader may even ask you to help with whatever effort may be needed to focus resources on children and classrooms who need attention.
[For any teachers, principals or other school officials that are reading this, here is an excellent resource on how to systematically and meaningfully share test data with families in your school community.]
What You Can Do Alongside Other Parents and Families
Even if your concerns are not taken seriously by school leaders, you can reach out to other parents and families and tell them what you’ve found. When you take the time to explain the connection between student achievement and successful schools and strong communities (here’s a great read to help you draw those connections), parent and family groups will probably be more than willing to put their heads together to come up with great ideas to support the young people in our schools.
If you’re feeling ambitious and driven, put a small group together and seek training from the Alabama Parent Education Center’s (APEC) Academy for Parent Leadership and Engagement. APEC has years of experience training parent leaders in our state. Their training helps you transform your great ideas into strategies that you can implement in your child’s school to improve achievement and success for your school community.
The Point Is: You CAN Do Something
While the ALSDE provides a way for us to check out test scores, PARCA’s data compilation gives us an easier way to look at ARMT test results. We need to take the time to look at what the data tells us, and if we have questions, let’s ask our school leaders to help us understand.
Our school communities need to understand what is (or is not) happening in our community schools. Test data is one objective measure that can help us get a grasp on what kind of learning is taking place in our schools.
Join your PTO or PTA. Attend school committee meetings. Offer to serve on a school committee. Attend school board meetings. Get to know the people working in your school and school system. Talk with your child’s teachers and ask them what kind of help they need. Those relationships are so important.
While it’s important for us to ask questions about test score data, ultimately it’s more important for our school communities to be willing to be part of the solution and work alongside other parents and families and teachers and school leaders to positively impact the education of the children in our school community.
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