Alabama’s Looming Drops in Test Scores

Alabama is implementing a new generation of standardized tests that will provide more clarity for students, parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers. This is important and necessary to improve our educational system, but with these changes in assessments, Alabama is likely to experience two distinct drops in standardized test scores in 2014 and 2015.

Both score drops will be unpopular, but both are necessary to improve educational outcomes, because Alabama’s previous generation of standardized tests provided a murky and often misleading picture of student achievement, as well as teacher performance and school performance as it relates to student achievement.

new memo from A+ provides a brief overview of the entire standardized testing landscape in Alabama, especially as it relates to the College and Career Ready Standards in our state and the Common Core State Standards nationally. This blog post is adapted from part of that memo.

The two drops will be the result of different policy changes:

  • The 2014 drop in scores will occur when the percentage of students deemed “proficient” in grades 3-8 declines due to the new Aspire tests being aligned with the more rigorous College and Career Ready Standards.
  • The 2015 drop will occur when all of Alabama’s graduating students have taken the ACT and Alabama’s percentage of students meeting the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks drops. Previously, the only students who took the ACT in Alabama were those who voluntarily took it in preparation for applying to college.

2014 Score Drop

Alabama’s new academic standards raise the bar academically for students. As a result, students will have to perform at a higher level on the CCRS-aligned Aspire in order to be deemed “proficient” in reading and math. In the long run, students will rise to the challenge, but in the short run this will result in a rude awakening for students and their parents who are accustomed to being told they are “proficient” by the ARMT.

The Aspire will judge students more like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card. The NAEP is given to a random sample of students nationwide every two years. NAEP questions are more in-depth than the ARMT questions and are often open-ended instead of multiple choice. Additionally, the NAEP uses higher cut scores to determine who is deemed proficient.

According to the 2011 NAEP, less than 30% of Alabama fourth graders were proficient or advanced in math, while the ARMT classified nearly 80% as the equivalent (Level III or IV) in the same year. In reading, just over 30% of Alabama fourth graders were deemed Proficient or Advanced on the NAEP, while the ARMT said roughly 90% met those marks:

Alabama is not alone. Forty-six other states and the District of Columbia also adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and they will likely see similar drops in test scores over the next several years. Kentucky was the first state to fully adopt the standards and CCSS-aligned assessments, and their test scores dropped in 2012. The same happened in New York this yearWhile these drops in test scores look like a decline in performance, they are actually a shift in measurement to a more accurate picture of student proficiency. Unfortunately, we’ve set the bar too low for most students in recent years, both in Alabama and nationally. As students adjust to the increased rigor of the work, states’ proficiency rates in grades 3-8 will climb in future years.

It’s difficult to determine how large a drop Alabama will experience with new CCRS-aligned tests in grades 3-8. According to the NAEP comparison above, Alabama could see its proficiency rates drop by as much as two-thirds. New York’s proficiency rate dropped to 31% from 55% last year, in its first year of having CCSS-aligned tests. Kentucky saw a drop of about one third in its first year of new tests. It then saw mixed results with gains and decreases across subgroups of students in its second year, but all changes were minor compared to the dramatic first year changes.

Conversely, it’s possible that the new standards have so invigorated teachers and engaged students that Alabama’s drop in scores will be smaller than expected, thanks to enlivened classrooms. Through A+’s work, we hear anecdotal reports from teachers who feel like the new standards have helped them improve their craft, and students are learning at higher levels as a result. For example, Farrah Kilgo, a fourth grade teacher in Etowah County, wrote this on her blog last February during her first year working with the CCRS:

“We are less than 3/4 of the way through the school year now, but it is clear that the implementation of the CCRS in math has transformed the thinking and learning in my classroom… Conceptual knowledge and number sense are growing in my students, and they’re becoming… really great thinkers. They’re excited and eager, and the thinking strategies they’re using are overlapping into other areas of the curriculum.”

The actual effect of the new standards and assessments is yet to be seen. The best thing Alabama can do in the meantime is make sure teachers have access to the professional development and support they need in order to continue improving.

2015 Score Drop

The cause of the second test score drop, in high school, will be different. In 2015, all of Alabama’s graduating high school students will have taken the ACT for the first time. Starting in 2014 with juniors (the Class of 2015) Alabama will pay for all students to take the ACT. Previously, only students considering college would take the ACT. (In 2013, this was 78% of Alabama high school graduates.) This larger pool of test-takers will likely result in a decline in the percentage of Alabama students deemed “college ready” by the ACT benchmarks discussed above.

We can only estimate what percentage of students will meet all four of the ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks in 2015 since students self-selected to take the ACT in previous years. In 2013 in Alabama, 38,122 students graduating in public and private schools had taken the ACT, which is 78% of the overall graduating class. Among those students who took the ACT, only 20% met all four ACT benchmarks, or approximately 7,624 students. In the worst-case scenario, if the other 22% of 2013 graduates had taken the ACT and none met all four college readiness benchmarks, only 15.5% of graduating students in 2013 would have been deemed college ready.* Presumably, since Alabama now has higher academic standards that are meant to prepare students for college or a career, we won’t experience this worst-case scenario since future students will be better prepared when they reach the ACT.

Despite the tough medicine of these impending perceived drops, Alabama is on par with many states in setting its sights on college and career readiness for all students. Not only will these assessments set a higher bar for all students, but they also help provide students and their families with honest feedback on where they stand as their consider their options for after high school. This is important.

In the turmoil of policy changes in education, it’s easy to forget that student learning and achievement is paramount, and sometimes that means a dose of tough love for students, teachers and systems to make sure students can fulfill their potential.

*Calculated using ACT’s data source: graduate estimates from “Data Explore,” Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates,” from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.