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School Board

Superintendent Steve Hopkins and Natrona County school board members Rita Walsh, left, and Dana Howie listen to comments from the public during a school board meeting in October. Board members want more local control over student assessments. 

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

The Natrona County School District’s board sent a letter in September to the state’s top educator calling for more local control of student assessments.

Board members received their response in January. State Superintendent Jillian Balow said her office was waiting for fall assessments to finish and was doing research to ensure their response was correct. But as the months wore on, the board in Casper grew increasingly frustrated.

“We shouldn’t have to remind her that it’s polite to respond to correspondence,” trustee Debbie McCullar said in November as the board debated whether to send another letter to Balow.

In its original letter, the board requested “more dialogue around early childhood assessments.”

“We firmly believe that school districts should be able to determine the assessment that is best suited to measure and monitor reading levels,” the board wrote.

The trustees said they were concerned by a required reading assessment for kindergarteners through second-graders. Board members had thought that they could use their own tool to check on students’ early literacy, which is a strong indicator of future academic success. The district had planned on assessing it earlier in the year, so teachers could have time to adjust their instruction.

The district had already started training teachers on an assessment, called FastBridge. Trustees Rita Walsh and Toni Billings said the district had received approval from the state Department of Education to use the universal screen, which looks for reading and behavioral difficulties, among other things.

FastBridge would satisfy both students’ learning needs and the statutory requirement that districts assess early student literacy.

Billings said the district’s decision was supported by the findings of a statewide committee that looked at early childhood testing. She said that task force, of which she was a part, concluded that “standardized, summative assessments are not developmentally appropriate.”

In other words: FastBridge was appropriate in the district’s eyes because it wasn’t meant to determine a student’s ability. It was a check in.

A test given to younger students near the end of the year as an outcome-based test — called a summative assessment — was not appropriate, Billings said of the task force’s conclusion.

But the education department informed districts that the reading K-2 test, under the new WY-TOPP statewide assessment, would be required, and that students would have to take it between mid-April and mid-May.

Balow, in her Jan. 2 reply to the district, said using the assessment statewide would give her department “statewide comparable and longitudinal data on early literacy.” Essentially, every district using the same assessment would create a uniform set of data, she said.

Natrona County’s board took issue with the requirement. Board members alleged that it was taking away local control and undercutting the recommendations of the state’s own assessment task force.

“It’s not appropriate for K-2,” Walsh said in an interview.

In her reply to Natrona County’s letter, Balow said she remained “resolute in the decision to require” the assessment.

Billings and Walsh said that the requirements stripped the assessment task force of any of its validity. During an interview, Billings read quotes from Balow from when the superintendent was a candidate.

“’From day one, I have talked about collaboration and working with people,’” Billings quoted Balow, citing a 2014 Star-Tribune report. “’That’s been a hallmark of my campaign, but that will be a hallmark of my administration as well.’”

“Well, that was a very big group of stakeholders, a very specific group,” Billings said of the task force. “A highly educated group of people, and their recommendations were disregarded.”

“On the question of campaign promises, I guess I haven’t had any of those personal conversations of the board members yet,” Balow told the Star-Tribune last month. “I’d invite those conversations. I again have always talked about having a variety of assessments.”

Balow said in an interview that the test “isn’t summative, it’s an interim assessment.”

Interim assessments are typically mid-year check ups to ensure students are on track. Walsh, Billings and the board argued that because the K-2 test was being given in April and May, it was basically an end-of-the-year, standardized assessment.

“This is an interim, but it’s being used as a summative,” Billings said. “They’re only giving it once, and they’re going to look at it at the end of each of those years. It’s a set of data that’s going to be little to no use to the teachers.”

That touches upon one of the early childhood assessment task force’s other points: If an assessment is given to young students at all, it should generally be able to “guide instruction.”

The district argued that if this K-2 test was being given at the end of the year, then it couldn’t be used to help teachers check on their students in a meaningful way before the academic year ended.

But Balow said a test given in mid-April would give ample opportunity for instructors to have an “intervention” with students who may need it. Plus, she said, one of the reasons the state chose its new assessment system was because of how quickly results could be given to teachers.

“That’s then over a month,” she said of the time between the assessment being given and the year ending, “or like six weeks that they can continue to make meaningful interventions and meaningful instructions.”

She added that only Natrona County has raised concerns about the assessment with her office.

With the board’s frustrations about the assessment come other criticisms. At several meetings between September and Balow’s response in January, members of the board grew increasingly exasperated about the silence from Cheyenne. Eventually, they directed associate superintendent Walt Wilcox to send Balow another letter requesting a written response.

“The (first) letter was drafted, and we all signed it, and sadly that was on Sept. 11 and we waited, ever so patiently, for four months for a reply,” Billings said.

Balow said the education department was working through its first assessment window in the fall and that officials were talking with WY-TOPP’s vendor.

“The delay was from reaching out to people,” she said.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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