Wyoming students scored better on this year's state skills test despite widespread technical problems during the test's administration, according to reports released Friday morning by the state Department of Education.
Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students, or PAWS, tests students in third through eighth and 11th grades in math, reading and writing. Students in fourth, eighth and 11th grades are also tested in science. Of the 44,000 students tested in 2010, more than 68 percent scored proficient or advanced in all subjects. Seventy-two percent of students tested proficient or better in math, 64 percent in reading and 78 percent in writing.
More students scored proficient and advanced in writing than in 2009 in every grade -- 35 percent more in fourth grade -- according to state PAWS results. The spike in writing proficiency was caused in part by changes to the skills graded and the number of points needed to meet state standards, state officials said.
Results were delayed three months while analysis could be done on the validity of the test's administration, which was plagued with technical problems. An independent, third-party analysis determined technical problems did not affect student performance, but officials say school districts should use the data carefully and cautiously.
Major gains in writing on last year's state skills test are due in part to changes in how the tests were scored.
About 60 teachers discussed the test's standards and how students should be measured. Previously, the writing test was scored in six skill areas: idea development, organization, voice, conventions, word choice and sentence fluency.
The last two skills were folded into the first four, which changed how writing tests were scored. Points awarded changed from a maximum of four points to a maximum of three points per skill, lowering the maximum number of points from 48 to 24.
Scoring changes weren't the only reason or the main reason scores increased, said Jim McBride, superintendent of public instruction.
"The real story is what's going on in the classrooms with the teachers," McBride said. "We've had a statewide emphasis on improving writing."
But the scores can't be compared to those from past years, said Mike Flicek, director of assessment and research for the Natrona County School District.
Re-evaluating the standards, more students were determined to be meeting them, Flicek said. What's more important is how much the district grew beyond the state average.
The state has received verbal confirmation that schools will be exempt from adequate yearly progress, or AYP, from the U.S. Department of Education, McBride said.
AYP is the mark schools must meet to prove students have learned skills. Elementary and middle schools will carry over their AYP status from 2009. High school AYP will be determined from 2009 PAWS scores and the most recent graduation rate.
Holding AYP for a year means schools that made significant progress in 2010 won't be recognized. It also means 10th-grade scores won't roll over and all high school juniors will have to take PAWS next year.
McBride said 30 districts requested the waiver and it wouldn't be fair to punish a school or district that experienced excessive problems.
"We can't go back and undo that now," McBride said. "And I don't know I would if I could, because I don't want to hurt even one individual student."
While more students scored proficient or better, more students also scored basic or below basic on half of the tests. Students whose first language isn't English scored the lowest, with at least half scoring below proficient on every test except eighth-grade writing.
Asked about more students scoring below proficient in a dozen areas, McBride said technical problems could have factored into those scores.
"We're not sure that data is valid and reliable," McBride said.
McBride thinks scores will improve across the board in 2011 because tests will be administered on paper with pencil.
Reach education reporter Jackie Borchardt at (307) 266-0593 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her education blog at trib.com/reportcard and follow her on Twitter @JMBorchardt