Boise schools order additional testing on math

Strengthening math skills

Fourth-grade Valley View math teacher Kathy Pound talks about ways the STAR test has helped
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Fourth-grade Valley View math teacher Kathy Pound talks about ways the STAR test has helped

Boise School District will spend nearly $200,000 this year on tests to get what it can’t get from Idaho’s new statewide achievement test: a detailed analysis of strengths and weaknesses in math and reading among students from elementary to high school.

Beginning in September, the district administered the 20-minute multiple choice tests in both subjects in grades three through 10 to see how well students measure up to meeting Common Core State Standards, the knowledge that students are expected to know before they graduate from high school.

The results are important because schools could be held accountable for how well students improve under the new standards, which require more critical thinking and analysis from students.

Don Coberly, Boise School District superintendent, has criticized the state’s achievement test — called the Idaho Standard Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced, after the consortium of states that created it — for failing to deliver specific data that can show teachers the gaps in student knowledge. Moreover, the test averages six hours in length.

“We wanted teachers to get more specific information,” he said.

The answer: Boise District is using the STAR programs in math and reading from Renaissance Learning, a Wisconsin company that has provided testing since the late 1980s and tests 60 million students a year.

Today we have totally revamped what we are doing and built (math) fluency in every single day.

Kathy Pound, fourth-grade math teacher, Valley View Elementary

The Boise district isn’t the only one in the country using STAR as another avenue for information on students’ Common Core savvy, said Brett Jenkins, Renaissance’s general manager for STAR assessments. Statewide Common Core achievement tests are typically given once a year and provide a single data point in student growth. The STAR exam can be given multiple times through out the year — typically in fall, winter and spring – so teachers can see how students are progressing, he said.


In her fourth-grade class at Valley View Elementary School on Milwaukee Street, Kathy Pound tosses dice with student Easton Waters. Each player multiplies the numbers on the dice to see who wins — a fun way to learn multiplication.

“Oh, you are killing me,” Pound told Waters as he rolled a four and a three to get 12.

Then Waters threw a six and a six. “Oh, he beat me again,” she said. “I’ve got to roll better than that.”

Forty-five percent of Boise School District students were proficient or better in math on last spring’s statewide achievement test.

Valley View has 460 students and a low-income population of 64 percent; that’s one measure that helps schools predict how many students may struggle.

For 35 minutes every school day, Pound and Courtney Richardson, another Valley View fourth-grade teacher, drill their students on basic math facts like multiplication. The year didn’t start out that way, but after students took the STAR exam, it became apparent to the teachers that their students needed more work on the basics. So students now get two doses of arithmetic a day: one in the basics and the other in regular fourth-grade math that is focused on multiplication problems.

“They don’t know their facts quickly,” Pound said.

“Having that fact fluency just really gives them the background,” Richardson said.

The STAR program takes data down to the specific student in specific areas. But even at the grade level, STAR yields data on student readiness.

At the beginning of the year, just 5 percent of the school’s fourth-graders were at or above the mastery level for doing whole-number computations using addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. By year’s end, STAR estimates that 36 percent of them will be at that level.

“If you don’t have your facts down, you’re sunk,” Pound said.

$184,678 Annual cost to the Boise district for administering the STAR test.


At White Pine Elementary School in Southeast Boise, fourth-graders encounter a different set of gaps.

They have difficulty with number sense – understanding how math works, not just the rules to get to the answer. They struggle with number placements — such as knowing that 25 is 20 plus 5, not two plus five.

But STAR is helping sort that out.

“I think STAR finally helps us dial into the teaching we are doing,” said Principal Tera Coe. “I felt the district went out of its way to find that tool.”

Most classes have given just one test since school began, but teachers can do the testing as often as they feel it’s necessary. The best sense of how STAR changed teaching to improve student performance under Common Core will come when the STAR exams are giving in spring, along with the next round of Common Core tests.

Bill Roberts: 208-377-6408, @IDS_BillRoberts Bill has covered education in Idaho for most of the past two decades, focusing much of his reporting on student achievement.

How we got here

Common Core Beginning in 2011, state leaders including Tom Luna, former state superintendent of public instruction, pushed for Idaho to be part of Common Core State Standards, a set of common learning expectations adopted by most states.

The test When the tests were given in fall, districts were surprised to learn they got little information to tell them where students needed to improve, despite the hours devoted to test-taking.

What’s next Testing information is one of several issues surrounding state achievement tests that the State Board of Education will consider in future months as it tries to figure out where the Common Core test fits in the state’s educational strategy.