by nathan oster
Major shifts in both the content that was tested and the performance expectations had a dramatic effect on students who took the American College Test (ACT) and the Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students (PAWS) during the 2013-14 school year.
Schools around the state are still interpreting data from the ACT, which was released in August, and the PAWS, which followed in late September. One conclusion that has already been drawn statewide, however, is that students didn’t fare as well in terms of hitting the new standards for proficiency.
At the high school level in Wyoming, students are required to take the ACT for federal and state accountability. In 2014, over, 6,000 Wyoming students took the test. Statewide, the average composite score rose to 20.1 in 2014, up from 19.8 in 2003.
While that 20.1 figure falls short of the national composite average of 21.1, state education officials note that it represents the score of every Wyoming students, whereas in most states, only those students who plan to attend college take the test.
Statewide, 39 percent of students were found to be proficient or advanced in math, 34 percent were proficient or advanced in reading and 32 percent were proficient or advanced in science, according to data from the Department of Education.
A higher percentage of Greybull High School students hit the proficiency targets in math and science, with 45 percent making it in math and 36 percent in science. Only in reading did the GHS student fall short of their peers statewide, coming in at 28 percent proficient. In recent years, prior to this year’s changes, GHS students have typically fallen within 70 to 80 percent proficiency in the three content areas.
GHS Principal Ty Flock said, “overall, our juniors did pretty well compared to the junior classes of the last couple of years.”
Last year’s ACT-taking juniors finished with a 20.2 composite in math, up from 19.4 the year before and 19.1 the year before that. Within the past five years, the 20.2 composite posted in 2014 ranks second.
Reading “is our biggest concern,” Flock said. “It’s the one area we went down.”
GHS students posted an average score of 20.0, down from 20.4 the previous year. It was the second lowest reading composite posted by GHS in the last five years, Flock said.
As for the other subject areas, GHS students posted an average science score of 19.9 — “the second highest in the last five years,” said Flock — and an 18.3 in English, which was “higher than the last two years, but not as high as in 2010 and 2011.” The composite score for the GHS juniors who took the ACT was a 19.7, also “the second highest composite score of the last five years.”
Flock said the unfortunate part is that GHS students’ improvements are likely to be overshadowed by the “proficiency” discussion, which this year was greatly impacted by changes in “cut scores.”
In the past, a student was proficient if he or she hit a 16 in reading, a 17 in math and a 20 in science. This year the proficiency targets changed. “Whereas before it was apples to apples, now it’s apples to oranges,” said Flock, noting that the test is now scored on a three-digit system, rather than the two. “It’s even hard to determine how they figure their numbers,” he said.
Flock said GHS has made gains in the area of math since his arrival two years ago and that now the focus will shift to reading. It has already begun with a shift in the types of English classes being offered at the school. More of an emphasis if being placed on teaching reading and writing in the classroom, in addition to offering a college level English class in the classroom.
Flocked concluded that “if we were using the old system, comparing how last year’s juniors did on the test, they actually scored higher,” he said. “We had multiple kids scoring over 30 and a large number in the 20s.
“With the changes to the cut scores, we now have a benchmark, a new bar, and we need to grow from there,” he said. “We are always trying to improve. Well now we know in what areas we need to improve.”
The PAWS results released in late September show that Greybull elementary and middle school students scored in a range from a high of 78 percent proficiency, that coming in seventh grade writing, to a low of 38 percent, in sixth grade math.
In all but four of the 12 assessments (fifth grade reading and writing and sixth grade math and reading) a greater percentage of Greybull students achieved proficiency than the percentage that did so statewide.
At the third grade level, 58 percent of Greybull students were proficient or advanced in math while 63 percent reached proficiency in reading.
Proficiency numbers for the four graders came in at 57 percent in math, 75 percent in reading, and 61 percent in science.
In the fifth grade, 58 percent were proficient in math, 58 percent were proficient in reading, and 50 percent were proficient in writing.
As a first-year principal, Brett Suiter wasn’t at Greybull Elementary School last year, but says he saw signs of improvement in the data. The focus moving forward will be on math and reading curriculums, he said.
“I would look at the data as a new baseline for this year,” said Suiter. “We know that we want students to grow. The administration team had a trend line comparison. If you were to look at the line you clearly could see that students had a trend line similar to the year before.”
While reading and math are the top areas of focus, Suiter said, “We continue to focus on all curriculum areas. As a staff we recognize that we have to continue working hard every day to ensure that we provide a strong education that is individualizes to meet student needs. We need to remember this year is a new baseline for the PAWS, so it is hard to determine weaknesses.”
The proficiency report offers a mixed bag of results for the middle school.
Sixth graders were measured at 38 percent proficient in math and 49 percent in reading.
At the seventh grade level, 49 percent were proficient in math, 73 percent were proficient in reading and 78 percent were proficient in writing.
Proficiency scores for the eighth graders were 65 percent in math, 72 percent in reading and 70 percent in science.
Principal Scott McBride said the seventh and eighth graders did very well in comparison with their peers in other districts in the state. The seventh graders ranked third (out of 48 districts) in reading; the eighth graders ranked fifth in reading.
In math, the seventh graders ranked 18th, the eighth graders eighth.
In science, eighth graders ranked second in the state.
“We have some work to do” in the sixth grade, McBride said. In reading, sixth graders ranked 38th, and in math, they ranked 41st.
McBride said that because this year’s test differs so much from last year’s, it’s going to take longer to break down the results. The process has begun and will likely continue throughout the school year. The goal is to develop general areas of strengths and weaknesses.
“Our goal is to teach kids in a way that will help them achieve at every assessment they are required to take in life,” said McBride. “The essential skills we will continue to focus on are reading, writing, and mathematics. All kids will receive a well-rounded education, but we will place additional emphasis on the basics.
“What we hope to improve the most is growth for every student in comparison with their peers in the state and the nation. We focus our attention on the individual child and analyze data to determine growth each quarter and every year. This will continue to be our focus with the new standards and assessment.”