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Making the grade

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Area schools are not concerned by standardized test results

LINCOLN — School officials at Wynot and Hartington-Newcastle public schools are reading between the lines when reviewing the 2020-21 Nebraska Student-Centered Assessment System results.

“I was surprised initially at what the results were, but the more I studied it and the more I dug into everything the less it worried me,” said Grant Torpin, principal at Wynot Public Schools.

That’s because the results from the NSCAS test released last month come with a variety of caveats that one has to take into account to understand the results fully.

The Nebraska Department of Education announced the transition to a through-year assessment model in October 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted statewide assessments of third through eighth-graders and were canceled in spring 2020 but the transition to the testing model continued.

Standardized tests typically take into account several years of data but the piloted NSCAS did not, said Hartington-Newcastle Superintendent A.J. Johnson.

The NSCAS assessments were shortened for the 2021 pilot to preserve as much instructional time as possible and shorter assessments are typically less statistically reliable and less precise than the longer assessments used in the past. The shorter assessments were classified as highly reliable even though they were slightly less reliable and slightly less precise than early versions of the assessments, according to the NDE’s COVID-19 Special Report.

The pilot assessment aimed at gathering data only and originally did not include public reporting of the results. However, the U.S. Department of Education insisted that public reporting occur despite limitations, according to the NDE report.

In releasing the results, the state warned not to compare districts and schools to each other as circumstances during the pandemic varied greatly between districts.

There is strong evidence that Nebraska students continued to learn despite pandemic interruptions but it’s likely that most students did not grow as much as would have been expected during a normal school year, according to the NDE.

In Wynot’s case, both the English Language Arts - vocabulary, reading comprehension and writing skills - and Math - algebra, geometry and data/probability-results were below statewide proficiency levels.

“It's really difficult to look at this one data point and get super concerned,” Torpin said. “Yes, it's easy to blame COVID, but schools around the country and world understand that certain results such as this year's NSCAS are going to be skewed a bit due to these kids just getting off of a semester or more of remote learning and dealing with the mental toll the global pandemic has placed on them. I think it would be irresponsible to make a judgment of student abilities based on this one test.”

The NSCAS results are a one-time snapshot of student achievement. Districts have multiple sources of data for students and the combination of the data and trends are more important than any single assessment result.

“This is just one piece of the puzzle that we use to look at the progress our students are making,” Johnson said. “We have several ways to evaluate student progress and those methods are not just one test but several evaluations throughout the school year.”

Hartington-Newcastle’s NSCAS results indicated meeting the statewide proficiency in English Language Arts but below proficiency in Math.

Torpin said in other nationally-normed tests, Wynot students are consistently scoring much higher than the national average. If all of the assessments were pointing to the same results as the NSCAS then he would be concerned and look to make major changes.

“That is not what our data is telling us,” Torpin said. “Our students are excelling in many areas.”

Johnson said he is pleased that the NSCAS assessment will be changing for the next goround of testing to a summative test - no longer a pilot.

“It fits in with what many school districts are already doing to evaluate student progress,” he said. “This new method also looks like it is more sustainable and long term so it should keep the test from changing formats from year to year.”