Boardmembers question school testing drops
by Garth Meyer
Test results in the Redondo Unified School District have drawn scrutiny from two school board members saying that drops in math and English/language arts are beyond pandemic learning loss.
Susan Wildes, assistant superintendent of educational services, presented a rundown of test scores at the Oct. 10 school board meeting.
The numbers for “Smarter Balanced” exams showed, in English-language arts, 73 percent of Redondo Beach students met or exceeded the state standard, and 67 percent in math, for the 5,000 local kids who took the test.
“We went down more than any of our surrounding elementaries (from 2019 to 2022),” said Boardmember Rolf Strutzenberg. “Some down 12 percent… I am extremely disappointed.”
“We have extraordinary teachers, who have been doing mental health triage,” Wildes said.
A crowd of teachers at the board meeting applauded.
Superintendent Nicole Wesley stepped in with a comment, saying, “Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Are there things we can do better? Absolutely… We look at the data seriously.”
Boardmember Byung Cho echoed Strutzenberg.
“I am concerned,” he said. “When I saw the graphs… 52 percent for 11th grade math… that shouldn’t be happening here… this has to get better. We’re here for the kids. Let’s do this. Let’s do this now.”
“I’m not putting any of this on teachers,” Strutzenberg said. “We don’t need to be loading them up with more things, MAP (testing), SEL (social-emotional learning). We need to do better with getting the help where it needs to be given.”
Board president Rachel Silverman-Nemeth said that the district’s new English-language arts curriculum, in its second year, is a burden but it is a three-year implementation.
“Kids’ basic needs need to be met first,” said Wildes. “They are in crisis. We have students who don’t know how to play on the playground.”
MAP testing – “Measure of Academic Progress” – is also a source of some disagreement on the board.
Begun in 2021 in Redondo, funded by federal pandemic money, MAP is done through a computer program that adapts the difficulty of questions based on the child’s answers. The tests are held three times per year, in all grades, except kindergarten and 11th.
Strutzenberg voted “no” Oct. 10 for a $50,000 expenditure for the current year of MAP Accelerator, a supplemental math program for grades 3-8. It was approved 4-1.
“I get nothing but negative feedback from teachers on this,” Strutzenberg told Easy Reader. “They say MAP tests are not entirely accurate, or not useful. It sucks up time. It can be depressing for kids because they feel they’re not good enough. The test keeps going until kids can’t answer.”
He counted 11 teachers that he had talked to about it.
“Now that Smarter Balanced is back, we don’t need (MAP),” Strutzenberg said, referring to Smarter Balanced going on hiatus for a year in the pandemic. “We never had MAP tests before.”
Wildes touted MAP’s specificity to each student.
“It’s like going to the doctor and you stand on a scale; they use the bar to go heavy-lighter, heavier-lighter to find the exact weight. It’s a growth measure,” she said.
For learning loss seen in Smarter Balanced, Strutzenberg said the district needs to target its efforts more, particularly for two elementary schools; Tulita and Beryl.
“Certain school sites don’t need it,” he said. “(Only) two sites had done worse from 2019 to 2022. Wouldn’t you give them more help? None of the others went down nearly that much.”
Is it being targeted?
Efforts are both targeted and broad, Wildes said.
“I’m not going to call out specific schools in a board meeting,” she said in an interview, noting that internally, the district examines subgroups in individual schools, looking for any disparities by gender, race, income, students with disabilities, and more.
Overall, in comparison to Manhattan Beach Unified School District, for 2022-23, MBUSD recorded 79 percent of students meeting the standard for English-language arts (ELA) and 73 for math. Redondo Unified scored 73 percent in ELA and 67 in math.
Federal pandemic funds in Redondo have been spent on more tutoring in secondary schools, in-person and virtual, Wildes said. “We’ve added a tremendous amount of tutoring.”
“These are minimum standards,” Strutzenberg said. “Thirty percent of our kids are not meeting the minimum education. That’s 3,000 kids.”
Is this normal?
“It’s very common,” Wildes said. “This issue is not new.”
She pointed to statewide Smarter Balanced numbers of 46 percent of students meeting the standard in English-language arts and 34 percent in math.
In its off year of no testing at the height of the pandemic, creators of Smarter Balanced revised their test. Thus, the 2021-22 results, Wildes says is a “new baseline, a new blueprint,” as deemed by the California Department of Education.
Strutzenberg questions calling it a new baseline.
“You can do that. Why would you do that?” he said. “It’s making it easier to show improvement then. Kind of shuffling the bad news under the rug and not facing it. Why wouldn’t we want to get back to where we were before the pandemic?”
The father of an elementary-schooler and middle-schooler, Strutzenberg makes the point that, of 41 area elementary schools, only one had a higher drop from 2019 to 2022 than two in Redondo Beach (Beryl and Tulita).
“It was different tests,” Wildes pointed out again. “In 2023 we saw (much) Tulita growth….”
“Redondo Unified is well above the State of California results and comparable to surrounding district results,” said Merlan Land, a math teacher at Adams Middle School and president of the Redondo Beach Teachers Association. “As a district, school site and teacher, our goal is to always improve.”
The district aims to increase scores in ELA and math by 2-4 percent by spring ‘24 and science by 5-7 percent, as set by its new three-year Strategic Plan, approved by the board in September.
One percent means about 50 kids.
“We’re thinking about what we can do to target those students with intensive interventions,” Wildes said.
Veteran boardmember Raymur Flinn is confident things will improve.
“We had a slide in the pandemic. Everybody did,” she said.
Flinn said the one-time pandemic money was “helpful, but not extremely helpful. We have to absorb the cost (to keep MAP going).”
She spoke in support of the $50,000 expenditure for the MAP Math Accelerator which works in conjunction with Khan Academy.
“It says, ‘we have MAP scores for Timmy, log in Timmy, you need help with fractions,’” Flinn said. “The kids get the extra help they need with Math Accelerator. The majority of our teachers are now understanding MAP can be a real force for learning.”
She adds a grain of salt to the Smarter Balanced scores.
“Some kids have good days, some kids have bad days, some take it seriously, others don’t, for something they are not graded on,” Flinn said.
What about what Cho said about the 52 percent?
“I think that’s a factual statement. It’s concerning,” said Flinn. “Nobody is saying it’s okay… it’s not, ‘nobody is doing anything.’”
Does she have any concern that the efforts and/or money is not being targeted effectively?
“Not at all. They deal with that on a school-by-school basis,” she said.
Flinn pointed out that some professional development time this year is for improving testing, school by school.
Consultant Chris Steinhauser, who has worked with the district for the past three years in general improvement, is now expanding his role to help create school improvement plans.
“Smarter Balanced (results) is just one part of it,” said Wildes. “For example, if your doctor wants to put you on a health plan. Your weight would be just one indicator. Along with blood pressure, cholesterol…”
What about what Cho and Strutzenberg said?
“We don’t disagree. What I disagree with is we’re not doing anything,” Wildes said. “My department loses sleep over how to address student needs.”
Does she believe the district will reach the 2-4 percent goal this year?
“I do. Teacher efficacy – teachers coming together to talk about what works for this group of students (etc.)” Wildes said. “How they’ve taught certain lessons in particular ways and gotten better results. We have some really great things happening in our classrooms. I feel very confident.”
She noted that, in professional development time, pairs of same-level schools meet (Beryl and Alta Vista for example), principals meet every month, and certain professional development days put entire grade level teachers together.
First-year boardmember Cho, a father of three children in the district (one at each level; elementary, middle school and high school) spent two hours with Wildes last week going over Smarter Balanced numbers.
“The learning loss that took place across the country is tragic how this has impacted all of our kids, even in as prestigious a district as RBUSD,” he said.
Cho cited MAP testing as a key piece to get out of the slump.
“That tool empowers our teachers and parents,” Cho said,“… seeing the results, I can also do my part at home (as a parent). And I am hoping that is happening across the district.”
What about Strutzenberg’s report of negative feedback from teachers?
“I have heard positive things about the tool,” Cho said. “Teachers I have heard from are glad they have this analytical tool that helps them tremendously.”
Will this get the district to 2-4 percent growth?
“I hope so. I think it will,” Cho said. “It’s another test. I get that. Having to take another test. But I believe it saves class time in the long run… We encourage the teachers to use that tool.”
A further benefit, he says of MAP, is that since the tests are three months apart, it can detect social-emotional problems – indicated perhaps by a dropoff for a particular student.
“Shouldn’t a teacher already know that?” Strutzenberg said.
Is Cho confident the district is targeting this problem as it should?
“Yes,” he said. “We’ll get there. We’ll get there. There’s definitely a sense of urgency here.” ER