WKCE scores aren't as bad as they look in West Allis

April 30, 2013

West Allis - Like other schools in the state, the West Allis-West Milwaukee schools saw a precipitous slide in the proportion of students deemed proficient in reading and math, based on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam.

West Allis's composite score was only 33 percent of students at least proficient in reading this year, compared with 79 percent last year. Math showed a smaller dip, to 50 percent, compared to 67 percent last year.

The drop wasn't the result of poor student performance on the exams; it was simply that what might be called a "passing grade" was much higher this year. The result was similar among all Wisconsin schools this year.

"Even a student who was 'advanced' in 2011-12, it's possible that the same student would be 'basic' with the same score," said Johnna Noll, West Allis-West Milwaukee director of curriculum instruction.

Test particulars

Students in grades three through eight and in 10th grade take the WKCE each fall.

School officials want all the students' scores to be in the proficient or advanced categories in each of the five subjects tested - reading, math, language arts, science and social studies. Students who aren't working at grade level fall into the basic or minimal achievement categories.

The new "passing grades" are based on performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national test of student performance. Often called the "Nation's Report Card," it is the largest continuing assessment of what students nationwide know and can do in core subjects.

More rocky test scores could be coming as the state drops the WKCE entirely and moves to the national testing based on the new Common Core Standards that Wisconsin and many other states have adopted.

That national testing, called the Smarter Balanced Assessment, will start in spring 2015 and emphasize a more rigorous college and career readiness scoring standards that match those in other high performing states.

Hidden improvements

Just because fewer West Allis students are deemed proficient in reading and math doesn't mean they will have trouble getting into college or trouble reading textbooks when they get there.

"Absolutely not," Noll said, noting that nothing has changed except the test target is higher now and that Wisconsin, as a whole, is perennially in the top three highest-scoring states on the ACT college entrance exam.

Even though a lower proportion of students is considered proficient under the new scoring, the students actually did better on the WKCE compared to last year, Noll said. And that progress was across the board with no group of students such as economically disadvantaged or disabled, left behind.

In math, for example, every grade did better than last year, except for 10th grade, Noll said.

The push toward personalized learning in the lower grades could have played a role in that, she said.

Deeper thoughts

The district has pushed toward deeper thinking, multiple-step problem solving to align with the new Common Core Standards, and that recent effort is showing up in the test results, she said.

"The data definitely shows what we want," Noll said.

The shift in math to deeper thinking reaches down even to kindergarten, where students collect information in real-world situations to solve math problems, Noll said. In the upper grades, the emphasis is on word problems - and they are likely more difficult than students' parents saw in their formative classroom years, she added.

Overall, West Allis-West Milwaukee seems to have an odd relationship with math. Students start out way above the state average but finish significantly below it.

Reading has been another emphasis in the shift toward the Common Core Standards and again the theme is the deeper learning that students will need to do well on the new Smarter Balanced Assessment, Noll said.

"We're really working on the inquiry process and getting to be deeper thinkers," Noll said. This is being accomplished by teaching how to draw comparisons and use reasoning in every subject area, she said. The deep learning emphasis has been more systematic this year for the intermediate and high schools and builds on the foundations laid in the elementary schools, she said.

Unwanted gaps

Fifty-nine percent of this year's third-graders were proficient or advanced compared with only 48 percent for the state as a whole. But by 10th grade, only 33 percent were math-proficient which is below the 44 percent state average. Students beat the state averages every year until the slippage started in seventh grade.

"We would like to see that gap less," Noll acknowledged.

Also, the gap between the two high schools in the proportions of students who are proficient is stunning. In reading, 39 percent of Nathan Hale High School students are deemed at least proficient while it's only 23 percent at West Allis Central. The gap is even wider in math: 42 percent at Hale and 24 percent at Central.

For years, the district has doggedly tried to close this achievement gap.

Seeking to apply the most expertise to the situation, the district has teachers of both high schools meet to talk about approaches and problems with classes or even individual students.

"Every student counts in both schools," Noll said., noting that the combined teachers concentrate on what to do to help each one.

Noll did see a little bright spot in reading, noting that a higher percentage of Central students were advanced in reading than at Hale. Central had 4.5 percent advanced and Hale had 3.1 percent. And there was more growth in reading scores at Central, Noll said.

"So there are opportunities for growth at Central," she said.

West Allis-West Milwaukee3350

* The Kohler School District is included because it is normally one of the highest-performing districts in the state.

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