Vermillion students put to the test

Vermillion students put to the test By David Lias Every year the staff of the Vermillion Public School District administers standardized tests to students in grades two, four, six, eight, nine and 11.

They don�t view the exercise as a competition, however. They aren�t out to try to prove how much better Vermillion School District is than the 167 other public school districts in South Dakota.

Vermillion school officials simply want to discover how well students are learning the curriculum teachers have been presenting.

South Dakota requires that students in grades two, four, eight and 11 take the tests.

�We added the other two (grades six and nine),� said Liz Hogen, the Vermillion school district�s curriculum director.

�The district, in its testing policy, has picked up grades six and nine as well, and the reason for that is we feel it gives us a plan for measuring growth of a particular group from grade level to grade level,� said Len Griffith, who serves as a counselor at Vermillion High School and is also the school district�s standardized test coordinator.

Besides testing two extra grades, the school district also administers two different types of tests.

�We give the SAT, the Stanford Achievement Test, not to be confused with the Scholastic Aptitude Test. And that is an achievement test,� Griffith said. �We also require students to take the Otis-Lennon. That is a test of school ability. We only require that of grades four and eight.�

This fall, the performance of South Dakota students on standardized tests received added attention when Gov. William Janklow indicated he would support giving funding bonuses to school districts with students that perform well on standardized tests. He also suggested if schools don�t improve, the state might seek authority to hire and fire administrators, hire outside agencies to run schools that don�t change and use state aid to reward or penalize performance.

The Vermillion School District is, in all likelihood, being viewed in a positive light by the Janklow administration. This fall, the governor�s office released a ranking of the state�s 168 school districts and their average four-year scores on Stanford Achievement Tests given to grades four, eight and 11.

He singled out the top six school districts, where average scores were 72 to 75, compared to the state average of 63.

Eight schools, including Vermillion and Wakonda, had average scores of 69.

Janklow also pointed out the lowest-ranking schools, with scores of 43 down to 21.

�From the governor�s statements, Vermillion came out good,� Hogen said. �But we�re really not planning to change what we�ve already been doing. We�re not about to get into a fight with the governor.�

Ability achievement

The Vermillion School District has its students take both the SAT and the Otis-Lennon tests to come up with a unique measurement of progress that Griffith terms �ability achievement.�

�Based on those two tests, you could take Jane Doe, and you could take her score from the Otis-Lennon and you could take her achievement score, and determine whether or not she was scoring at a level that you would expect.�

This method, Griffith said, is fairer than pitting student against student to see which school district can score the highest.

�We are not be comparing her achievement to someone who had lower or higher ability. You would not be comparing apples to oranges,� he said. �You actually would (using Vermillion�s methods) be comparing a group of eighth-graders, for example, with the same ability and how they achieved, either higher or lower.�

Not all school districts administer the Otis-Lennon Test. Vermillion continues to offer it, however. �The reason we do that is so that we really have a much purer comparison of groups or of individuals to use .�

Griffith said a school ability test should not be confused with an IQ test.

�They are not an IQ test. They are an indicator of a student�s potential to learn. It is a test of probably about 40 to 50 minutes that has true reliability and validity as an indicator,� he said.

Griffith said that based on a particular ability, such as reading for example, one could expect a student to achieve at a certain level because of his or her potential.

�The test, does, obviously, measure students� experiences and their exposures and their skills at that level of reading, because if you can�t read, you really can�t take either the Stanford test or the Otis-Lennon, because they aren�t verbal,� Griffith said.

How the tests work

The Stanford Achievement Test measures students� abilities in mathematics, language, environment, and listening skills.

�The tests change depending on what grade level you are testing,� Griffith said. The test also breaks down broader categories of measurement into more concise proportions.

�The test will break down the scores under reading, for example,� Griffith said, �to show word study skills and vocabulary, and it would show problem solving procedures under math. The test will also break the score down into content clusters, meaning it will take the work study skills and tell you exactly what kind of objectives they are trying to meet.

�It takes the big picture, breaks it down into a smaller one, and then even smaller,� he added, �and then it tells you how that picture compares with others students.�

The Otis-Lennon Test helps reveal just how well individual students are learning, based on their ability.

Vermillion school administrators knew that a particular group of students was scoring at about the 60th percentile in the Otis-Lennon test for their ability.

�They achieved at about the 62nd percentile, so that would indicate to us that this particular group was achieving at or better than was to be expected as a group overall,� Griffith said. �We do that with individuals, because each one of the individuals gets a skills sheet that lets both school officials and parents know just how well the student is doing.

�That way, too, we aren�t comparing grade two from Vermillion with grade two from Yankton or grade two from Sioux Falls,� he added, �because it�s an inaccurate comparison to make unless you have this ability. You don�t have any idea what the average ability of a group is. That�s why smaller schools sometime score very well or very poor, because they have a much smaller base to draw on when you talk about an average ability score.�

Vermillion School District personnel have discovered in recent years that the Stanford Achievement and the Otis-Lennon tests dovetail together quite nicely. What Vermillion is accomplishing with these two tests is what the state of South Dakota originally had in mind when it decided to require achievement tests.

�Something like what we use was the intent of the state, really,� Griffith said. �Testing groups came up with a design similar to what Vermillion is using for the state to use. They said we�re not going to try to measure Vermillion and Yankton, for example, because we don�t know how those groups compare. We know what their achievement (scores) are, but we don�t know what each group�s ability is.�

Griffith noted that different groups of students in different schools have different experiences, exposures and abilities.

�That doesn�t mean that the teachers aren�t doing a good job, or the curriculum isn�t good. It just means that one student�s abilities are different than another�s. You have to take the difference in abilities into consideration.�

How testing helps

Standardized tests serve as more than a way to measure student performance. The tests also serve as guideposts for school districts, helping them track everything from the effectiveness of curriculum to whether or not certain objectives are being reached.

�We want to use this as a tool to improve our curriculum � not to label the students, but instead to use it to improve what we provide for them. We look at it as one tool. It�s an indicator.�

Griffith said the Vermillion School District�s testing program�s foundation contains both state and national education goals.

�We look at any areas where we think we have a deficiency,� he said. �We aren�t looking just for areas where we can hang our hat.�

After students� test scores are tabulated, a report is developed for both students and their parents. �The parents are told that if they have any questions, they can come in to the school and discuss them with us,� Griffith said.

Teachers also interpret the scores and track the progress of each class. �The interpretation is of how a particular grade did (on the test), and we can look and see how they did in the second grade, and then the fourth grade, and then the sixth and eighth grades and so on.�

After the Vermillion School District receives standardized test scores, an itemized analysis is performed, Griffith said.

�For every question in reading, for example, we know what particular objective was trying to be evaluated. We know what percentage of our students got it correct and what percentage of our students got it incorrect. If there�s a flag that says a large percentage of our students got it incorrect, then we want to know why,� he said.

Test scores can give Hogen and other members of the district�s curriculum committee signs that students properly understand course material. It can also indicate instances when students are having trouble grasping what the district is trying to teach.

�The whole objective for the curriculum committee is to take the test results apart to determine why students scored the way they did,� Griffith said. �The teachers get a scope and sequence of how, when and where the district�s objectives are being presented.�

Because that scope and sequence is documented for each grade level, the Vermillion School can go back year and after year after year to check its objectives. That, Griffith said, is one of the proper ways to use standardized tests.

�I don�t think many schools do this. I know we do. I think we�re one of the best of using these tests for the appropriate reasons,� he said. �We use it in a big way, and then filter the results down in an itemized analysis to determine what to do in the future.�

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