The disparity between grades and results of public school students in the standardized tests they take year after year has been the focus of many research and analysis about what happens in the classroom, elements that affect learning and the quality of education students receive.
Given this fact, the nonprofit organization ABRE Puerto Rico OPEN Puerto Rico) set out to determine in how many of the islands's schools students who pass grades with good marks get good results on standardized tests. It is an analysis that served as a basis for creating an index of school performance to be published soon.
At the end of the past school year, 68 percent of students between 3rd and 6th forms in public schools in Puerto Rico passed with A and B, while 53 percent mastered the skills measured in META. 62 percent of the eleventh grade students completed the year with those grades, but only 35 percent had positive results on the standardized tests.
According to the report, this means that, in 158 of the 198 public high schools included in the research, more than half of the students passed the eleventh grade at the end of the 2016-2017 school year with averages equivalent to grades A and B. However, only 28 public schools reported that more than half of their students passed the META tests.
Positive results on standardized tests are defined as those that score within the "advanced" and "proficient" ranges, which means that they mastered the skills in the test.
This discrepancy between the good grades students get and the negative results that for years have been reported in the multiple versions of standardized tests has been a topic of constant discussion in academic circles for the past decades. The fact that students "do not pass the tests" is one of the reasons that have been outlined to justify the different versions of standardized tests.
The last major modification was made for the 2015-2016 school year, when the Puerto Rican Academic Achievement Tests were replaced by META.
"We are highly concerned about the great discrepancies we have found in Puerto Rico between both instruments. If standardized tests seek to measure proficiency in certain skills, teachers grades should be aligned with that goal. We cannot accept that in a school only 15 percent of the students are proficient, but more than 77 percent of the final grades are A and B. That cannot be a good result for anyone, let alone for the student. Due to what appears to be a weak correlation between grades and tests, we understand that the decision to promote a graduate student cannot be based exclusively on one of them," states the report, produced in September 2017.
The research does not take into account variables that, according to pedagogical experts, have an impact on the academic performance of students, such as the number of students enrolled in Special Education and that the curricula of the Department of Education was modified in 2014. It also does not provide any space to evaluate the debates generated by the standardized tests in academic sectors, as if, in fact, they were aligned to the material covered in the classroom.
By federal provision, the Department of Education must administer standardized tests that measure students performance in math and reading from 4th to 8th form and in 11th. In Puerto Rico, tests are for Spanish, English, mathematics and science, although the latter is only administered in fourth, eighth and eleventh form.
On Wednesday, the federal Department of Education approved the plan submitted by the local government to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a statute that - like its predecessors - conditions the allocation of federal funds to educational agencies to measure the academic performance of students through standardized tests.
Keeping an eye on elementary school
In total, the report only includes the performance of 1,002 schools. For the 2016-2017 school year there were 1,292 schools open.
Arnaldo Cruz, co-founder of ABRE Puerto Rico and spokesman for the Center for Integrity in Public Policy (CIPP), explained that schools where less than 11 students took the test in any of the subjects were left out of the research.
In this article, only the results in the report for the 2016-2017 school year are mentioned. The document also included data for the 2015-2016 school year, but the study itself acknowledges that there is "a slight level of inconsistency" in that analysis since, in its calculation to report students' grades, the grades on all of the subjects were used -such as social studies and physical education- and not only those measured in META.
"Education did not provide us with a breakdown of grades by subject for 2016, but by 2017 we already had the information by form and subject, so we could conduct a more complete analysis," Cruz said.
The analysis of ABRE Puerto Rico determined that the difference between the number of students who obtained A and B grades in Spanish, Science, English and Mathematics classes at the end of the past school year and the number of students who mastered the skills in these subjects in the META tests become larger as forms go up. Although the average number of minors who score good grades remains relatively stable from third to the sixth form -with fluctuations between 70 percent and 63 percent- the results in the standardized tests decrease by 20 percentage points between third and sixth forms.
The gap between the students' grades and their results in META becomes greater after fifth and sixth forms, Cruz said.
Why do students with good grades don’t´get good ones on standardized tests?
Cruz considers that the problem lies in the grades awarded by the teachers, which do not necessarily evaluate students objectively.
"There is a serious issue with grading, their objective value. In the report, we speak about the reasons why there is a difference (with the META tests) and all the subjective criteria of giving a grade because there are teachers who include other elements, such as behavior or class participation," said Cruz.
"Public discussion has focused on the fact that the tests do not work, but the serious problems we have are in the grading and in promoting students from one form to the next. The reality is that these, the tests, are consistent while something is happening with how students are promoting, "he added.
The founder of ABRE Puerto Rico argued that problems with grades are evident when students go to college and have to take extra courses to learn skills they should have mastered at school, which is why he recommended using standardized tests as an instrument to determine if students promote or not.
But in the pedagogical sector, the standardized tests are seen from another perspective, said the professor of the Faculty of Education of the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and specialist in student learning evaluation Julio Rodríguez.
The professor explained that standardized tests only measure academic achievement correctly if it is guaranteed that they are aligned with the school curricula and administered to students who were taught all the curricular content in the required period.
"As it is well known that every student is different, they learn in different ways, they receive and process information in different ways, with different methods, as well as their work methodologies. So, if we already know that they are different, why should we think that they will react in the same way to an evaluation tool? By imposing a standardized evaluation, only certain qualities or abilities of the students are to be taken advantage of," said Rodríguez, to whom El Nuevo Día provided a copy of the ABRE report.
A pedagogical look
At United States levels, debates have been generated about how fair standardized tests are and whether they measure adequately students´performance.
Elements such as students poverty level, teachers preparation and the proportion of students of Special Education in a classroom are all elements that directly affect the ability of a student to do well in standardized tests, argued the head of the Faculty of Education of the Río Piedras campus of the UPR, Roamé Torres González, and former Secretary of Education Odette Piñeiro.
"The report makes no reference to the growing literature that questions the validity and reliability of standardized tests to measure students ´learning or students academic achievement. In general, what these tests measure are very limited aspects of the knowledge taught in schools. These are mainly designed to measure students' memory skills and basic thinking skills, not their problem-solving abilities and critical and creative thinking," said Torres González, who questioned ABRE's assertions regarding that there is “extensive literature on the validity of these tests."
According to a study conducted last year by pedagogy doctors Alicia Castillo and Piñeiro, most school principals on the Island believe that there are external factors to school environment that directly affect student learning and that there is a relationship between the socioeconomic level of the students and their academic performance.
"67.7 percent of the principals think that poverty affects student achievement negatively", says the experts' research, entitled "Change in the roles of school principals in Puerto Rico".
By 2016, 62 percent of the children between the ages of 1 and 5 lived beyond the poverty level and their parents faced an unemployment rate of 29 percent, according to the Kids Count report, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Recent studies by researchers at Harvard and Dartmouth universities show the negative effect of poverty - among other toxic stressors - on the physical and cognitive development of children, which affects their learning.
In Puerto Rico, it has also been determined that there is a correlation between poverty and poor academic performance. For example, senior project manager at the Statistics Institute, Orville Disdier, compared the socio-economic data of public school students with their academic performance and concluded that poor students are "twice as likely" to get low standarized test scores.
For Cruz, although it is an interesting element, the poverty level of the students on the Island is relatively constant across all schools and does not explain the differences in student performance.
"You have schools in the same town that have the same level of poverty, but students get different results and the gaps are not the same (between grades and the META tests)," he argued.