Ann Arbor school officials weigh in on student testing and 'opt-out' possibilities
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Testing became a hot topic last week at the Ann Arbor Public Schools. And school board members were eager to join the discussion, weighing in on the subject of opting out and the district’s rationale behind so many tests.
Students in grades 3 through 9 began taking the state-required Michigan Educational Assessment Program exam on Tuesday. The same day, a group of parents from AAPS launched a petition to garner support for asking the district administration to stop testing students so frequently.
The petition’s primary target is the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress exam, which the district added to the testing lineup last fall. Students take the test three times per year to assess their growth.
Superintendent Patricia Green and members of the district’s instructional services team presented a comprehensive report on student achievement data to the Board of Education on Wednesday night.
It highlighted up to five years of test scores from each of the following: the MEAP, Michigan Merit Exam, NWEA MAP, College Readiness standards and the ACT.
While school district administrators have plans to analyze the data further, a few trends have emerged already. Among them is improvement among African American students as a group. MEAP and MME test score data show that black students increased their proficiency at higher rates than the overall student body at most grade levels.
Another pattern district leaders see is either a lack of growth or a decrease in the percentage of students proficient in some cohorts on the MEAP test in grades 5, 6 and 8. The trustees and administrators spent a great deal of time talking about this issue and how the data can help them understand why this may be happening.
“When we’re talking about the MEAP test that is administered to sixth-graders, what is happening is that the MEAP is given in early October and it basically reflects what was learned over the previous year,” said Board Secretary Andy Thomas. “So this is really a decrease at the fifth-grade level not at the sixth-grade level, am I interpreting this correctly?”
“So then this is really an excellent example of how the MEAP, in essence, is really looking in the rearview mirror and seeing where you were a year ago,” Thomas said. “And I think this really emphasizes the point that we need current-year assessments throughout the year. This is what we’re getting with the NWEA.
“I know there is continuing pushback regarding the NWEA. But I think that it’s very important for the public to understand the rather extreme limitations of looking at MEAP data and the importance of having that current-year data that measures student growth in real time, as opposed to looking in the rearview mirror.”
Green said the thing to remember is that the MEAP is not an individual student’s test, to show how a student is progressing.
“It’s there to judge a school or to judge a school district, whereas the NWEA is very specific to measure (students) growth so we can personalize and develop personalized learning plans and better inform instruction,” she said.
“It reminds me of the saying ‘the right tool for the right job,’” added Board President Deb Mexicotte. “The jeweler’s screwdriver versus the sledgehammer - they’re both useful, they’re just useful in different contexts.”
Trustee Glenn Nelson asked for more information on why the decision was made to drop the fall NWEA testing for kindergartners this year, permitting them to be tested in January and May only, during the second and third rounds of the exam.
District officials previously reported the decision was the result of feedback central administration received from building principals and parents. Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Dawn Linden said on Wednesday that the kindergartners really struggled developmentally with the test in the fall. She said many kindergartners were in tears last year.
Trustee Susan Basket acknowledged there are various sects of the Ann Arbor parent community who are adamantly opposed to testing — the NWEA assessment in particular. She asked what the drawbacks would be to giving parents an “opt-out” option.
“What are the ramifications of never having the children take the NWEA?” she said. “If we allow for an opt-out at this point, could we potentially jeopardize the child’s future academic career by not having this data and showing the progress?”
“It’s like a piece of the puzzle is missing,” said Deputy Superintendent for Instruction Alesia Flye. “If a classroom teacher has all of this data on all of her students and she’s setting plans, she can tell, ’20 of my kids missed a skill and this is what I need to do for those 20.’ These are the conversations teachers are having. And I do think it would disadvantage the student if their piece of the puzzle wasn’t in the equation. And the teacher couldn’t have the appropriate conversation with that family without that specific instructional data.”
Trustee Simone Lightfoot asked whether the district intends to look at doing away with some of its other assessments now that the NWEA has been put into place.
The district is analyzing the possibilities, Flye said. She said more than likely AAPS will not eliminate any tests but rather look at making slight adjustments in the number of cycles, like what was done for the kindergartners this year, or in the timing and scheduling of the tests.