The job ahead is clear: Boost math knowledge, improve English.
Four years after Idaho joined a 43-state movement toward a set of standards in math and English language arts, the first test results are in. The State Department of Education released statewide data Wednesday showing that only half of students or less in grades three through eight and 10th grade are proficient or above in math and English.
Math is more troublesome than English, but both need attention.
The Boise and West Ada school districts outperformed the state as a whole in each grade and category. Nampa and Caldwell results were not immediately available.
“We have always had to start somewhere,” said Debbie Critchfield, a State Board of Education member from Oakley. “It gives us a great leaping-off place for our teachers and, I think, for parents.”
Results from the Common Core test — the Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced, named for the consortium of states that put the exam together — will allow the state to “look at where our students are now. We are able to take that information and provide resources,” Critchfield said.
ISAT by Smarter Balanced is a controversial exam criticized by opponents of Common Core, a set of standards for what students should know about English and math before they graduate. The standards emerged from an education reform movement that was backed by many state governors, supported by President Barack Obama and funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Opponents complain that the test is too long, requiring six to eight hours.
When asked Wednesday about the results, state Sen. Steven Thayn, R- Emmett, a critic of the exam, said he still isn’t sure what the test measures. “How reliable is the test?” he asked. “What is it testing? Results might be great numbers or might not be.”
Final results will be released by the state in October. Results could change slightly as districts comb the data or raise objections to certain tests that might be included in the scores.
The preliminary results show a familiar pattern in math. Fifty percent of students statewide were proficient or better in math in third grade, but that dropped to 30 percent by 10th grade.
The same slide was evident in Idaho’s old ISAT exams, although those showed much higher levels of proficiency. Critics said the old ISATs were not demanding enough.
The West Ada and Boise districts show a similar pattern.
High school sophomores, however, haven’t had the benefit of the Common Core’s approach to math. Common Core dives deeply into understanding math concepts at an early grade and challenges students to think critically from the beginning, said Jonathan Brendefur, a math professor at Boise State University who works with Idaho schools to improve math instruction.
He expects proficiency percentages to improve as more students adjust to the new standards. “I think we have actually done pretty well,” he said.
Idaho’s test results don’t surprise Barbara Morgan, a former NASA astronaut and distinguished educator in residence at Boise State who is working to improve education in science, technology engineering and math. Even a 50 percent proficiency rate among third-graders in math is not good, she said.
But she believes the state needs to press Common Core. “I can tell you it is absolutely the right thing to be doing,” she said.
Improved math instruction could lead to more students getting jobs in technology fields, which could help raise Idaho’s otherwise low overall salaries.
The most important use of the first scores will be to figure out how to improve instruction, said Don Coberly, the Boise School District superintendent.
He is counting on the state showing districts where they can retrieve information from results to help teachers retool their instruction in the school year that starts in August . He needs that information soon. Next month, teachers will be coming back for training before classes begin. “The next step in the process is crucial,” he said.
About 160,000 students took exams in math and English.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra; her chief deputy, Pete Koehler; and West Ada Superintendent Linda Clark were not available for comment Wednesday.