July 22. 2014 9:53PM

Nashua school staff see tests as key to tracking student growth

Union Leader Correspondent

.Preparing for future: i-Ready thought of as useful tool as lead up to upcoming Smarter Balanced tests.

NASHUA — Students within the district have made some significant strides in math and reading, but a troubling percent of children, particularly those in middle school, remain below grade level.

Teachers and staff from Elm Street Middle School and Birch Hill Elementary School presented the 2013-14 results from the i-Ready assessment tests pilot program to the Board of Education this week. Students in grades 1 through 9 take the 45-minute, online tests, which are based on the Common Core Standards, in the fall, winter and spring while kindergarteners are tested in November and May.

“The tests are a diagnostic tool for teachers, not an accountability measure,” said Superintendent Mark Conrad.

Test results, which are available immediately, not only show if a student is on grade level, they also pinpoint specific areas in math and reading where individual children need help.

“It’s real time data used to drive instruction,” said Elm Street Principal Mike Fredericksen. “The data is used for student placement, math and reading intervention and to find out who is eligible for eighth grade algebra.”

Conrad stressed that i-Ready tests are meant to track student progress over the course of the school year.

The tests, developed by Curriculum Associates of Billerica, Mass., also lets teachers compare the improvement, or average point growth of Nashua students with the expected point growth of all students.

For example, reading test scores for second graders are expected to increase by 39 points over the school year. Nashua second graders boosted their average reading test scores by more than 43 points.

According to the i-Ready program, first graders should see a gain of 41 points on math tests. Nashua first graders had an average gain of 42 points.

However, as BOE member Robert Hallowell pointed out, increases in points and averages can look impressive when students are starting out at skill levels well below what is expected at their grades.

And the i-Ready test results show that most Nashua students are below grade level in math, and many are behind their peers in reading. According to i-Ready, 94 percent of the district’s seventh graders, and 96 percent of Nashua’s eighth graders are below grade level for math.

According to reading test results, 63 percent of students in the seventh grade are not reading at the appropriate level, while 48 percent of eighth graders are below their grade level.

In order to be on grade level, students must demonstrate on the tests that they have at least half of the skills expected to be acquired during a given school year.

Despite some troubling numbers, teachers and administrators believe the i-Ready tests are a valuable tool that will help them address each individual student’s academic strengths and weaknesses. And they believe i-Ready will help prepare students for the Common Core-based Smarter Balanced assessment tests which start in the spring of 2015.

But some members of the board saw problems ahead.

“What this tells me that the further along students go, the further behind they get,” said BOE member Sandra Ziehm. And that trend is major concern as schools continue to transition to a Common Core Standards-based curriculum which will introduce higher stakes and standards for all students at all grade levels.

For BOE member Dotty Oden, i-Ready is part of a shift in education that emphasizes an unproven reliance on uniformity, standardized test scores and data-driven teaching.

“Our kids are a lot more than data points,” said Oden. “To me, we are looking at the ultimate of teaching to the test.”