Results show students struggle with new standardized test

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WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — There's good news and bad news in Delaware students' performance on a new standardized test linked to Common Core academic standards.

The good news, state officials said, is that results released Wednesday show that Delaware students did better than expected on the Smarter Balanced assessment.

The bad news: Statewide, barely half of Delaware students, 52 percent, showed proficiency in English language arts. Less than 39 percent scored proficiently in math, including less than one-fourth of 11th graders.

"Simply put, these assessments that our children took are harder.... It does not mean that our students learned any less," said outgoing education secretary Mark Murphy.

Murphy and Gov. Jack Markell said the Smarter Balanced test results provide a new baseline to measure student progress. They said the results cannot be easily compared to the previous multiple choice test, known as the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System, or DCAS.

"Smarter Balanced is harder and different from any of our past state assessments," Markell said. "It tests more skills then we've ever tested before, and it does so more rigorously. For the first time, our students had to do more than fill in bubbles. They had to write essays, show their work and answer complex, real world problems."

If Delaware students can meet the more rigorous Common Core standards, Murphy said, they will be better prepared to enter college or the workforce.

"They need to be able to apply knowledge, not just regurgitate it," he said.

First year test results indicate, however, that helping students meet the higher standards will be a challenge.

Students still in elementary school tended to perform better on the test. Markell attributed that to being introduced to the higher standards at an early age. Performance tended to decline in higher grades. In math, for example, 53 percent of third-graders statewide met proficiency standards, compared to only 35 percent of eighth-graders and only 23 percent of high school juniors.

"There have been significant shifts in the content standards in mathematics," said Murphy, adding that 11th graders previously had not taken a statewide assessment. It had been administered in ninth and 10th grades.

In English, statewide proficiency measures ranged from a high of 55 percent in fifth grade to a low of 48 percent in sixth grade.

Among districts and schools, however, performance varied greatly.

Roughly 96 percent of students took the test statewide, meeting the 95 percent threshold set by the federal government. The participation rate fell short in 11th grade, however, with only about 90 percent of students taking the test.

Three of the state's 19 school districts — Christina, New Castle County Vo-Tech and Polytech — also fell short of the participation threshold. It's unclear what, if any implications that will have for Delaware's education system.

"We are in constant communication with the U.S. Department of Education in regards to what the implications are," said Murphy, who noted that the two vo-tech districts are both high schools, and that their participation rates thus reflect only 11th graders. "That will be an ongoing conversation."

In July, Markell vetoed a bill allowing Delaware's public school students to opt out of both statewide and district tests without repercussions. The bill was specifically aimed at the Smarter Balanced assessment, which has come under attack from lawmakers and the state teachers union. Markell said at the time that allowing students to opt out could marginalize the highest-need students, threaten millions of dollars in federal funding and undermine Delaware's economic competitiveness. Meanwhile, the administration has agreed to delay using Smarter Balanced test results for teacher evaluations for the next two years.

"A dose of honesty is very much in order here," Markell said in releasing the Smarter Balanced results.

Officials said families of individual students should be getting test results in the mail in the next couple of weeks.

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