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What do New York schools actually do with state test scores?

Solvejg Wastvedt
Chenango Valley's technology director interprets the score reports so the school can track its progress.

The standardized testing process is a little mysterious. Third- through eighth-graders take New York state exams every spring. But once they’re done, everybody goes on summer break. Where do the results go?

Last month schools around the state received those results. If you’re picturing big thick envelopes full of bar charts and Excel spreadsheets, guess again, says Chenango Valley Assistant Superintendent Liz DiCosimo.

She says first of all, we are in the email age now: no more paper score reports. “And they don’t come in a very user-friendly format, so they’re hard to understand and read,” she adds.

DiCosimo says the first stop for the scores is the school technology director. She’s the one who makes the slick bar charts. She breaks out the numbers so Chenango Valley can compare itself to neighboring schools and to its own performance last year. DiCosimo spreads out a big stack of papers on a conference room table and pulls out charts for each grade and stats for individual test questions.

It’s important for schools to get these results quickly. The state requires special classes for students with low scores, so schools have to schedule those classes for the coming year based on results they get in mid-August. DiCosimo says it was tough a few years ago, when the intervention requirement started.

“The first year, we had a mad scramble,” she says. “The first two weeks of school we were changing everybody’s schedules.” Now, she says, they look at past years' results to get a head start.

DiCosimo and her colleagues next drill down into the scores and examine individual questions. Instead of just measuring who can do math, they want to know which students have mastered specific math skills. With such detailed metrics, it’s no wonder everyone gets a little hyped up when scores come in.

“People work so hard all year to really prepare their students,” says Chenango Valley curriculum director Tammy Ivan. “Unfortunately, it’s kind of based on these tests – it’s unfortunate because if a child has a bad day or just isn’t on their game that day, it is reflected in their score.”

On the other hand, teachers do know their students. If one struggles, it will likely be obvious before state test day. Teachers track student progress with little “tests,” like quizzes and homework throughout the year.

“Often we don’t use the word 'test,’" says area BOCES administrator Jeff Craig. “If the kids are scratching their head, you know you’ve got to go back. They’re not getting it. So that’s an assessment, too.”

Craig says state tests, in contrast, aren’t designed to inform instruction. They’re supposed to be the big picture; the end result of all the lessons. Craig says the political firestorm over testing comes mostly from misunderstanding that purpose.

“When we try to use them for something for which they’re not designed, I think it get us in trouble,” he says. “It distracts us from what it’s really meant to do.”

DiCosimo says she works hard to keep tests in their place, but even so, the score reports are still a lot of data.

“It has become a full-time job,” she says. “It takes up a ton of time, so this year we’re adding a new position. We’re having a teacher on special assignment who’s going to be our DDI coordinator, our data-driven instruction coordinator.”

Someone to crunch all those numbers.

Solvejg Wastvedt grew up in western Pennsylvania and graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Over the summer, she served in Los Angeles as an intern on NPR's National Desk. Plus, before coming to Upstate New York, Solvejg worked at the Minneapolis community radio station KFAI. When she isn't reporting the news, Solvejg enjoys running and exploring hiking trails.