By Kylee Johnson
Curious as a cat I was when I tried to discover why we were spending so much of our class time taking a test that only seemed to produce a silly score. When I asked teachers about the NeSA, they would only shrug their shoulders in response and say that it was something that we had to take and try our best for our school. But why? That’s what I wanted to know, and so I went in search. The answers I got only confused me further.
I knew that the NeSA was somewhat of a new thing since I heard a lot of teachers throwing the word “pilot” around. So naturally, I began to wonder if there was a test that we were taking before the NeSA. Sure enough, I was right. And I knew that the test was something that everybody in the state had to take, so my first question was why? Why did everybody in the state have to take the same test?
This answer was simple: No Child Left Behind. This was a law that was set into play in 2002 in hopes that students would be proficient in Reading and Math by 2014. Every state had to set targets of achievement and then measured them with the help of standardized testing. These tests were based on the targets or what we’ll refer to as the State Standards.
The Nebraska State Standards are different for each grade level and honestly, I couldn’t find what the standards were for Science. In Language Arts (These are copied exactly from www.education.ne.gov/academicstandards/sit/ and you can get more in depth standards for each grade by going to their website) by the time students are in 11th grade they are expected to:
- Be able to learn and apply reading skills and strategies to comprehend text.
- Learn and apply writing skills and strategies to communicate.
- Learn and apply speaking and listening skills and strategies to communicate.
- Identify, locate, and evaluate information.
And for Math the standards for the time students are in High School expectations are that:
- Students will communicate number sense concepts using multiple representations to reason, solve problems, and make connections within mathematics and across disciplines.
- Students will communicate geometric concepts and measurement concepts using multiple representations to reason, solve problems, and make connections within mathematics and across disciplines
- Students will communicate algebraic concepts using multiple representations to reason, solve problems, and make connections within mathematics and across disciplines.
- Students will communicate data analysis/probability concepts using multiple representations to reason, solve problems, and make connections within mathematics and across disciplines.
The Standards are not constant. They are currently being revisited, not revised, every five years. “There’s a constant revision process for standards just to make sure that we’re getting anything new or any changes to make them better. Those standards are college-ready standards so that every student that graduates from a Nebraska high school is ready for college or a career,”Jeremy Heneger, the Assistant Director of Statewide Assessment, said.
The NeSA was created to test these standards, but before the NeSA, there was a “test” called STARS, which stood for Student-based Teacher-led Assessment Reporting System. STARS wasn’t a uniform test that every single school in all districts took. “This first system basically had districts creating their own assessments and then reporting to the State how the students did on those assessments,” Heneger said. So why did they change to the NeSA? “One of the biggest things that the state legislature wanted was comparability between districts. They wanted to be able to look at districts and schools and see how they did on the same test. In the STARS system, you couldn’t really compare results from school to school or district to district,” Heneger said.
So what exactly is the NeSA? The Nebraska State Accountability Test, (NeSA), is a standardized test that every student in the state of Nebraska has to take. The test is composed of four different parts; Reading, Math, Science, and Writing. The Reading and the Math portions are given in grades 3 through 8 and 11th grade, the Science test is given at grades 5, 8, and 11, and the Writing test at grades 4, 8, and 11. The scores received on this test are given back to the districts and are then posted on the State of the Schools Report so that people can look at and compare the schools.
The NeSA has been tested for validity making sure that it does what it is supposed to be doing. “So our partners that we work with they have what are called psychometrician and psychometricians are people that specialize in measurement and statistical measurement, Heneger said. “Each individual item on the test is run through statistical models to make sure it performs accurately. And the whole test is also run through a lot of statistical processes to make sure that the test is performing properly as well. Our NeSA tests have a high validity and high reliability when those things are calculated,” Heneger told me. He also said that each year there are 10 questions on the NeSA that aren’t scored but are being tested. “Basically we’re not testing the students were testing the items, and if they come back with bad numbers, if the numbers aren’t where we want them to be, then we don’t use those items on a real operational tests,” Heneger said.
The Reading, Math, and Science tests are scored automatically on computers. The writing however is scored in Minneapolis. “Data Recognition Cooperation is our vendor, and they are based out of Minneapolis, Heneger said. “Those papers are scored by people who come and score them. That being said, all the training that’s being done and all the decision making rules that are done for the writing is done in house in Nebraska with Nebraska teachers. So we do give them a lot of guidance as far as how to score the papers and the rubric,” Heneger said.
So far, I knew what the NeSA was, and I had an idea of what the score was supposed to represent, but I still was confused.
I know that not all high schools have English Languages Learners (ELL) students and/or students who have Special Needs, so do they have to take the test as well? They do. Most of them take the same test that every single student takes. There is, however, an alternate test that is still based on the Nebraska State Standards but it uses the underlying skills to get those standards. “There is an alternative test for about 1% of the students that are Special Ed qualified and those are severe and profound students,” Heneger said. As for the ELL students, there are tests available in different languages, if the district decides to order them. “It’s up to the district to decide and make that accommodation available for students who speak languages other than English or Spanish.” Heneger told me.
Not every school has students who are ELL or Special Ed, but yet all students take this test that produces a score for each school. I began to wonder if the scores of ELL students and Special Ed students were counted in the overall score that is presented to the public. The answer: Yes they are. “On the state of the schools report for reporting, all the scores are shown as a whole group, so everybody in the school,” Heneger told me.“When it comes to accountability, which is really that comparison of districts, all students are included in those numbers.” However, if you go online to the Department of Education website, one can look at the different subgroups, which will show them how certain groups of students did. For example, how males or females did or how each race did on the exam. But to see this breakdown, you have to go onto the Nebraska Board of Education website. It is not included in the State of the Schools Report.
Another part to this is the fact that a lot of students lack in motivation. I’ve witnessed kids fill in the bubbles so quickly to this test because there are no consequences for students who don’t try at all. Heneger said, “Finding motivation for students is difficult, especially for 11th grade students because they have, in general, bigger things to worry about such as the ACT and those types of things, things that seem to have more of impact on their lives.” Currently, however, they are doing a study to see if they could use the ACT as the state test instead of the NeSA. “The reason for that is the hope that students will be more motivated to perform to their full potential on that test since it has other consequences. So it’s an issue and we’re currently looking into ways that we can do that,” Heneger said.
So what good comes from this test? One is for the public so that they can see where their money is going. “Public schools are using public taxpayers’ money, so there’s some amount of information that goes back to the public so that they can have some measurement,” Heneger said.With the NeSA it gives them a score that they can compare to other schools in order to tell them which school is teaching the standards better, even though that school may or may not have Special Ed or ELL students. This score, though, is only one measurement of where their money is going. “This is only one measurement and you need to look at all kinds of measurements, things like graduation rates, how students are doing on the ACTs, college-going rates; those things are types of public accountability pieces,” Heneger told me.
Another benefit is for the schools (kinda). If a school was trying out a new curriculum, the NeSA score could tell them if that method of teaching was working for them or not. Though, for teachers, it gives them very limited feedback. “There are some sub scores,” Heneger said. “It’s a limited view about which areas they can improve in. So it’s not as helpful as some other types of test can be,” Heneger said.
I don’t know about you, but I’m even more confused. So what exactly does the NeSA score represent? I’d tell you the answer if I knew it, but to be honest, I don’t know if anyone knows what it exactly it represents. I do know, however, that it’s supposed to show how well each school is teaching the state standards but that comparing schools is hard to do when some schools don’t have kids on Free and Reduced lunches, ELL, or have students with Special Needs. When I asked Heneger what the score on the NeSA represented he said, “It’s only one measurement about how schools are doing teaching their students – the Nebraska State Standards: Reading, Math, Science, and Writing. It’s really important to know that it’s about the school, and individual students make up that total result but the score is really less reliable for telling how a student is doing. It’s only one point in time, it’s not a comprehensive test. So it does have a student score component, but it’s really about measuring how the school is doing, not how a student is doing. That’s how we look at it,” Heneger said.
So after all of this this is what I’ve come to realize. One is that the NeSA is good for schools to see in general where they need to work, but the whole limited access really restricts them. Another thing is that the scores are used inappropriately and how they’re reported to the public. The story isn’t all in the score from the NeSA, it’s in everything a school does from the classrooms to the speech and debate team or the football team. Heneger said it best, “Personally, what I hope is that districts and schools are trying to tell the rest of their story by communicating with people that matter most, the people that are in their district, the state holders, the parents, the students, community leaders and telling them, ‘This is part of the story but it’s not the whole story.’”