Why Low SmarterBalanced Scores Are An Opportunity--Not Cause for Concern

Why Low SmarterBalanced Scores Are An Opportunity--Not Cause for Concern


This September, Californians had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the course of history. The California Department of Education publicly released the district scores from this spring’s Smarter Balanced Assessments and now, the student reports have arrived at homes.

California didn’t do so well, and appeared to highlight the state’s achievement gap. But before we get depressed, keep in mind: This is another chance. Let’s do better.

The next time around, let’s choose not to blame the test, the state, the kid, the feds, the parents, or the fill-in-the-blanks. Each of us can change the future--both in terms of how we talk about SBAC test performance AND how we prepare students for it--by taking responsibility for our respective part of student learning and development.

To support this switch in mindset, here are some words to live by for the 2015-2016 school year, while students are preparing for the next round of SmarterBalanced and PARCC exams.

1. Never use “students” as a general noun when referring to performance. Ever.

In the past, we said, “My students didn’t perform this way or that.” But grouping them together and phrase the sentence that way sounds like you’re placing blame on the students for poor performance.

In this future, let’s say, “I was not able to reach a certain percentage of my students.” The word “I” makes a great difference. It serves as a reminder that the scores are the result of adult action or inaction, and adult ability or lack of ability to help students learn at high levels.

And what about student agency? Well, I refuse to believe that just 44% of California students are capable of learning the English language arts standards and 33% are capable of learning the mathematics standards. Therefore, educators, parents, community stakeholders have to do something differently to change the outcomes, including amplify student agency.

2. Never refer to a student score as “good” or “bad.”

If a student hears that a score is good or bad, they might assume that the outcomes are immutable, or fixed.

The score just is. A score represents one moment in time, and it is based on limited information about the student on one particular day. It says nothing about learning environment, home support, a myriad of other influences on outcomes, or--most importantly--student interest or potential.

3. Remember that a score is just one measure of student progress.

The score is a starting place, and this starting point should be viewed in context with student strengths, followed by the support we should offer for increased learning.

Just yesterday, I saw a snapshot of student report with high marks posted to Facebook with the caption, “I guess I get bragging rights”. My first thought - you can’t tell just by looking at the score. If your student entered the grade with that much knowledge of the grade level, you should be crying, not bragging. That parent should be looking at other measures. Hopefully, the student was learning something beyond the test or in other modes - learning to read and play music, or doing cross-disciplinary projects, or learning in a 3D lab or makerspace. On the other hand, if the student learned a ton in that grade, by all means brag about the learning, not so much the scoring.

4. Demand high levels of learning, not just high levels of scoring.

We all know that we can crank low level knowledge and inflate a score. Is that what we want for our students? We also know that our students should be able to read well, analyze information, compute, and communicate in many forms--written, spoken, digital, professional and interpersonal.

Refuse to accept rote learning for your students, whether it comes in the form of an Advanced Placement worksheet packet or a remedial reading drill-and-kill class. If a teacher holds students to high levels, he or she won't bend to reading and math only. That teacher will refuse drills, and prefer content-rich interconnected work. They'll use student work to modify the learning resources, assignments, and assessments they offer. They will look at performance data all along and track toward high performance.

And the final point...

6. Love your students.

Know them. Demonstrate your care by helping them to learn as much as they can--instead of making your relationship about how well students score on a SmarterBalanced exam. I recently heard Pedro Noguera say, “If you do not feel accountable to your students, you cannot serve them well.” 

Renee Hill is Assistant Superintendent in Riverside Unified School District in California. She and her teams support a BYOD policy, an all-digital high school, a virtual school, several choice programs and more than five design teams that are piloting personalized learning this fall. She was recently presented the Education Award by the Riverside-San Bernardino NAACP and the Valuing Diversity Award by the Region 19 Chapter of the Association of California School Administrators.

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