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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What happens when the high stakes test doesn't test what it is supposed to?


Brad Berryman has always liked science.

He enjoyed chemistry class and thought he’d be well-prepared by the time his end-of-course exam rolled around.

He was wrong.

“When I walked into the classroom, my heart kind sank when I saw my teacher and how upset she really was,” the Niceville High School student said.

Then he got the test.

“Virtually every question on that test had nothing to do with chemistry,” said Brad, who will be a junior next year. “I bet you they had four (chemistry) questions, tops.”

He said one question involved a Chinese zodiac sign and another asked students to decide why a store might choose to purchase tomatoes with thick skin rather than thin. The question came with a graphic, but the black and white test made it difficult to discern much from it, he said.

“Honestly, it seemed to me the person who wrote the test had no knowledge of chemistry, almost,” he said.

His experience is only one of many being described across Okaloosa County this month as students, parents and teachers struggle to understand what happened on new county end-of-course exams.

After seeing significantly lower scores than previous years, school district officials opted to adjust scores on 32 of the more than 40 exams administered to seventh through 12th graders.

Many of the exams, which local school officials said were intentionally more rigorous than previous ones, were prepared by BEACON Learning Center, an organization in Panama City that specializes in professional development and helping align school districts to state standards.

School district officials have said the tests primarily were made up of questions local teachers wrote for end-of-course exams several years ago, but frequently edited to make them more difficult.

A call to BEACON for more information about it and its background in developing standardized tests was not returned.

Issues abound for parents of the students who took, and often failed, the exams.

“We teach our kids you work hard, you study hard, you will succeed, and that was not the case this year,” said parent Stella Verzwyvelt.

She said although school officials have acknowledged there were issues with the exams and vowed to fix them before next year, that’s not enough.

“(Fixing) it for the future is only half the situation right now,” she said. “They need to fix what happened at the end of last (school) year.”

Verzwyvelt joined several other parents and teachers to call for the district to toss out all the end-of-course exam scores that hurt students’ grades.

“We’ve got to think about the big picture and who really suffers here,” said parent Angleat Shelikoff. “These exams have really hurt a lot of kids who worked really hard all year to try to make it.”

She said the exams potentially could push a struggling student over the edge — a drop they might never recover from.

“I don’t want us to lose our kids in middle school and high school who are struggling … you’re not going to get them back,” said Shelikoff, who has reached out to numerous local and state education officials about the tests.

The key reason those tests should not hurt student grades, parents such as Shelikoff and Verzwyvelt said, is because given all the issues, they clearly weren’t ready to roll out.

“I think it was probably some kind of perfect storm that happened this year,” said parent Kiki Simpson. “Kids are getting blamed when they shouldn’t. Teachers teach all year long and they’re being blamed … obviously there’s something terribly wrong.”

Simpson, a statistician, said she understands using curves, but from what she’s learned so far about the adjustments made to the exams, they didn’t sound like any curve she’d heard of.

Simpson said she’d love to see the models used to “norm” scores, and has volunteered her services to the district as administrators sort through the issue and look toward next year.

“I’d love to help out,” she said. “It’s important.”

The bottom line for parents is not about placing blame, it’s about correcting the problem, Simpson said.

“I know what we’re doing (by increasing the rigor) is a great thing. We’re trying to learn how to apply our knowledge,” she said. “(But) the stakes are so high, and that’s the thing.”

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