Lincoln Public Schools students’ performance on state tests dropped this year, in part because of ongoing changes to the tests themselves and the higher expectations that go along with them, state and local officials said. 

Two of the biggest changes — and the biggest drops in scores — are in the English Language Arts tests for third- through eighth-graders and the ACT test now given to 11th-graders instead of the state tests. Because the tests are so different, state and local officials say, they’re not comparable to past years.

Still, just more than half of LPS’ juniors are considered “on track” to succeed in college or are meeting benchmarks set by the ACT: 54 percent in English Language Arts, 53 percent in math and 56 percent in science. LPS outpaces state averages in all three subjects.

Some state senators and groups such as Educate Nebraska, which promote school choice, have been critical of the state scores and say education officials must “adopt meaningful and proven policies” that put students first.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said the downward trend happens in all states when new tests are introduced, and he expects state and local district scores to rise.

The ACT, for instance, measures how prepared students are for college or the workforce and that’s a significantly higher bar than the old proficiency measures, Blomstedt said. It’s not that kids are performing worse, it's that the expectations are higher.

“We asked a lot of kids to jump over a 5-foot bar and we raised it to 5-7,” he said.

High school juniors are considered proficient if they’re “on track” to succeed in two- or four-year colleges without remedial courses. That generally requires a minimum ACT score of 18. The ACT’s even more stringent "benchmarks" — minimum scores of 20 to 23 by subject — indicate students are likely to get at least a B in a freshman college course.

To put that in context: A perfect ACT score is 36, though very few students ace all four subject areas. LPS’ average composite ACT score (a combination of all four subject areas) was 20.4, compared with 21.4 for the state and 21 nationally. The University of Nebraska requires a minimum score of 20.

Last year, Nebraska high school proficiency rates on standardized tests ranged from 60 to 71 percent in reading, writing, math and science.

Juniors have always performed more poorly on state tests than their younger peers, and education officials have long thought one of the reasons is that the tests don’t impact them directly. Officials hoped that would change with the ACT, because it's necessary for college admittance and scholarships.

LPS, which has offered the ACT to all juniors for six years, began giving a practice ACT test to all sophomores and juniors this year to help prepare them. Jane Stavem, associate superintendent of instruction, said she thinks that will be helpful, and district officials will continue to look at whether they need to adjust courses.

“The point is, we’re always looking and always adjusting,” she said.

Leslie Eastman, LPS director of assessment and evaluation, said the Nebraska and LPS scores compare well nationally, and students still have a full year to prepare after they take the ACT as juniors.

New English Language Arts tests for third- through eighth-grade students also “raised the bar,” and resulted in a significant drop in scores from last year.

Overall, 57 percent of LPS students were proficient on the new English Language Arts tests, compared with 51 percent statewide, both significant drops from reading and writing proficiency levels last year.

For instance, previous LPS reading proficiency levels ranged from 71 to 88 percent, but the expectations went up significantly on this test.

Eastman said other district assessments and standardized tests show students’ reading levels didn’t change.

New state standards are more rigorous, and the test requires more analytical thinking and uses different computer skills, Eastman said.

Tests for older students also include a writing portion. All of that makes a difference, as does the fact that it’s a longer test, she said.

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Stavem said LPS officials expected a drop in scores, but were surprised by how much they dropped because it doesn't match other measures the district uses.  

In math, LPS proficiency dipped in third through eighth grade — ranging from 67 percent to 82 percent — and all but six elementary and middle schools saw dips in proficiency rates. Like other subjects, LPS outpaced the state average.

In LPS, science proficiency in fifth grade dropped 1 percentage point (to 71 percent) and remained unchanged (69 percent) in eighth grade. More than half the schools saw science scores rise or stay the same as last year.

State education officials have been warning about the anticipated drop in the English Language Arts scores, but say it's part of a process. 

Next year, the state will use a new company to design the tests, and new math standards will go into effect. Science standards will change in 2021. Ultimately, Blomstedt said, more-rigorous tests in early grades will help students be prepared for college or a career.

“It will start to build on all subject areas,” he said. “It’s really like we’re reinventing that whole process.”

That’s challenging for districts, Stavem said, because it’s hard to gauge the results and it takes time to make sure how and what they’re teaching is in line with the state tests, she said.

Nor does LPS want to spend too much time preparing students to take the tests, she said.

"We’re not opposed to more rigor and changing test items to reflect what students need to know to be career- and college-ready,” she said. “When state tests change, we need to adapt what we do, to do well on assessments and inform what we do in class.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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