What do the results of the first NeSA-M tell us?

By Jim Lewis and Michelle Homp

The scores are out – and for most of Nebraska, the results indicate there is much room for improvement.

As individuals interested in mathematics education, you are likely aware that the NeSA-M (Nebraska State Accountability in Mathematics) preliminary results were released at the end of August, showing roughly four out of 10 Nebraska students are not proficient in mathematics. And while the results may yet be subject to small changes when they are officially released in October, by and large the message is clear: with regards to mathematics, the majority of Nebraska students are not doing as well as we thought they were.

Some may argue that this should come as no surprise, since for those who looked hard enough the evidence that we were, in some sense, deceiving ourselves was there. For example, NAEP scores (National Assessment of Educational Progress) provided clear indication Nebraska students’ mathematical skills were in actuality significantly lower than district scores indicated.

In 2009, NAEP released a comparison of the percentage of students in grades 4 and 8 that states indicated were proficient in mathematics (and in reading) and the percentage of students whose scores on the NAEP exam indicated they were proficient in mathematics. (For a list of these and other data released by NAEP in 2009, visit http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/studies/statemapping/2009_naep_state_table.asp. The state of Nebraska’s reported score (which was really a compilation of district scores, as Nebraska was the only state in which each district developed and administered its own assessment) was an impressive 96 percent at the fourth grade level; the highest reported score in the nation.

However, the NAEP results told another story: according to their data, only 38 percent of Nebraska’s students were proficient in mathematics, with only 22 states reporting a lower percentage. If one uses these data to calculate the discrepancies between state reported proficiency scores and NAEP scores, only Tennessee overstated its success rate more than Nebraska. This is not a statistic of which Nebraskans should be proud.

What were the consequences of this discrepancy? In 2009 it was quite likely the case to most educators and policy makers across the state, that in terms of mathematical proficiency we had nothing to worry about; rather, we could pat ourselves on the back for a job (we believed was) well done. Thus, improving student achievement in mathematics may have been low on the priority list and received commiserate attention. The NeSA-M results are now causing many of us to reconsider our beliefs concerning Nebraska students’ mathematics achievement.

To be sure, not all of the news from the NeSA-M results was bad; there were definitely some bright spots among the results. To name a few – while 63 percent of students statewide met or exceeded math standards, 80 percent of students in Chadron Public Schools met or exceeded the standards. (For the complete article about Chadron’s results visit: http://rapidcityjournal.com/thechadronnews/opinions/chadron-students-score-high-on-tests/article_4e9b9c4e-d33e-11e0-87b1-001cc4c002e0.html. The Lincoln Journal Star recently ran an editorial praising Belmont Elementary (of LPS) where 91 percent of students in grades 3-5 earned a score of proficient or higher despite the fact that 74 percent of Belmont students qualified for free- and reduced- lunch last year. Several more stories of school successes are scattered in sometimes surprising locations across the state.

While it is not our intent to weigh in on the merits (or lack of merits) of statewide assessments vs. district-wide assessments or of the merits of assessments in general, one has to agree that for anyone interested in making mathematics achievement the best that it can be in Nebraska, it is best to begin with a realistic picture of the playing field. If we were still basing ‘next steps’ on last year’s assessment results, we might not know where we need to make improvements. Now, at least, we know it is time to roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty, and go about the business of increasing student achievement in mathematics.

And while the work may indeed be ‘dirty’, most Nebraskans are quite comfortable with their hands in the soil. The increased rigor of the revised Nebraska state standards on which the new assessment is based is already a step in the right direction. If the reading scores are any indication that we can lift ourselves by the bootstraps and make appropriate changes (and I believe that they ARE an indication), then increasing student achievement in mathematics is well within our grasp. After all, Nebraska students reading scores experienced a similar fall between 2009 and 2010 when a statewide assessment was implemented. In 2008/2009, the last year that districts wrote their own assessments for Nebraska students in reading, 93 percent of Nebraska student scores indicated they were proficient in reading. The following year in 2009/2010, the first year the revised statewide assessment was implemented, a mere 69 percent of Nebraska students received a score of proficient. A year later, the 2011 reading results indicated that nearly 72 percent of Nebraska Students are proficient, a definite increase.

As state education commissioner Roger Breed suggested, “By and large, school districts take this data and they go to work. That has been the history of Nebraska schools. The writing examination is a clear indication of that over time. But it doesn’t turn quickly. It takes time to do the alignment, to retool your curriculum, and to get students into it and through it.”

Thus, far from leaving us discouraged, the results from the statewide assessment in mathematics leaves us determined to move forward.

Those of us at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who are involved in NebraskaMATH believe that teacher knowledge of mathematics, pedagogical knowledge and knowledge of children are all part of the answer for how we improve. That’s why we have created programs like Primarily Math, Nebraska Algebra and the Nebraska Math and Science Summer Institutes, and will offer our programs to as many teachers as we can find resources to support. It’s also why our research team is trying to gain a better understanding of how teacher knowledge leads to student achievement.

Certainly, there are other parts to the answer. One might include math coaches or math intensive instructors in the elementary grades. Our Primarily Math program is trying to learn more about both approaches.

Just as certainly, leadership matters. Leadership from the district office, the leadership of principals, and the distributed leadership exercised by outstanding classroom teachers.

While we can’t promise an instant increase in student achievement, contact us if your school or district wants to become more heavily involved in NebraskaMATH (nebraskamath@unl.edu). We CAN promise to invest as much as we are able into Nebraska’s teachers. They and their students are well worth the effort.