As student testing mounts, growing chorus says it’s too much
By Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel Oct. 27, 2014
Last fall, Milwaukee parent Jasmine Alinder went to volunteer in her daughter’s kindergarten classroom for a day of testing.The students were taking the Measures of Academic Progress, computer-based tests given three times a year to track academic progress from fall to spring.But what Alinder saw disturbed her: not enough computers, malfunctioning equipment, and kids having trouble understanding and answering the questions, many of which she thought were confusing or poorly worded.”In one hour we managed to shepherd only three children through the entire test, with two others starting but not finishing,” Alinder wrote, in a piece circulated by the Milwaukee teachers union.The MAP test, Alinder concluded, “is disruptive and takes away valuable classroom time.”
Since last year, a growing chorus has echoed those concerns nationally, sparking a widespread discussion about the number, type and usefulness of tests administered in public schools.
Last week, a joint statement from state education chiefs and urban superintendents called for taking stock of and rolling back some of the tests on the table. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who in tandem with the Obama administration has generally advocated for test-based accountability, said he actually welcomed the move.
“In some cases, tests — and preparation for them — dominate the calendar and culture of schools, causing undue stress,” Duncan wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.
But untethering the American K-12 system from tests in an era of test-based accountability will be difficult. There’s no clear answer about how to use tests in a way that’s more helpful than now, in part because different factions have different beliefs on how much and what type of testing is necessary.
And the discussions are happening at a time when many states — including Wisconsin — are set to debut new state standardized achievement tests tied to the Common Core standards this spring.
The superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools system just called for delaying the administration of those exams. And school districts from New Hampshire to Oregon also are staging revolts, according to a story in Politico.
Tests that matter
The federal No Child Left Behind law passed in 2001 ramped up the focus on testing because it required that schools, in their annual testing of students, publicize the scores of student subgroups, such as English language learners and racial minorities.
Wisconsin students historically took those exams in third through eighth grade, and once in high school, in 10th grade.
The new Common Core-aligned state exams, to be administered online, will take the place of the old pencil-and-paper Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts exam in English and math starting this spring.
But other new statewide or district-specific tests have been adopted in recent years. Wisconsin has adopted an early literacy screening test, administered one-on-one by a teacher, for its youngest elementary students.
The WKCE in high school will be dropped, in favor of a suite of ACT-related tests in ninth and 10th grades, and then a requirement that all 11th-graders take the full ACT college entrance exam test.
MAP is something districts decide to use on an individual basis; MPS implemented it in recent years to better track the progress children make from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.
How many of those tests actually matter to students?
At a national meeting about testing Friday in Milwaukee, Riverside High School senior Jaxs Goldsmith — class president and an aspiring electrical engineer — said he and his friends saw the WKCE and the MAP as unnecessary.
“I rushed through them,” he said. “I really didn’t take those tests seriously, because they’re not tied to getting into (a good) high school or college.”
Kaya Henderson, the superintendent of the Washington, D.C., Public Schools, said Friday the pendulum had swung from knowing little about how student subgroups were performing in each school, to being overly focused on testing.
“I think we’ve gone from veiled accountability or limited accountability for schools to kind of uber accountability and test mania,” Henderson said. “I think there’s a reasonable middle.”
Critics of high-stakes testing, such as the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, say the nation needs an indefinite moratorium on sanctions, Common Core tests, other statewide accountability exams and requirements that student scores be used to judge teachers.
Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association union, said local teachers are not against tests; they simply want them to improve teaching and learning, not distort the educational process.
The MTEA is pushing state and local officials in Wisconsin to end computerized MAP testing of kids in kindergarten through second grade, reduce the amount of testing for kids with special needs and test English-language learners in their native language as much as possible.
“Don’t subject them to English tests that don’t reliably measure their content knowledge,” he said.
Betsy Kippers, president of the largest state teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said teachers and other organizations needed to examine state and federal mandates on testing and determine what, exactly, is necessary to assess a child’s progress.
“Instead of just a test made for the accountability of a school, what are the tests necessary to help a kid improve?” she said.
A Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesman shifted the spotlight away from the state test, saying districts give lots of other exams that aren’t required by the state.
“We are hoping local districts will join us in reviewing the exams they choose to administer,” said DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy.
What can be done
Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education, said no other country — including those outperforming the United States — has a year-by-year testing requirement.
“Not one of them give an accountability test more than three times in a student’s elementary and secondary education,” Tucker said.
He recommends that each state approve an instrument to screen kids for their basic skills at the beginning of their academic career, such as in first grade. And then have accountability tests just a few other times, such as at the end of fourth and 10th grades.
Even the College Board, the influential nonprofit that oversees the Advanced Placement program and the SAT college entrance exam, has done some soul-searching lately.
“We have enough assessments; what we need are more opportunities,” David Coleman, head of the College Board and before that, a chief architect of the Common Core standards, told urban district leaders in Milwaukee.
He said test prep for the SAT college entrance exam has in some ways widened the gulf between poor and disadvantaged students and wealthy students with more access to resources.
Coleman said the board needed to “dare to simplify” the exam, and to make sure that the barrier to college was not “an obscure litany of words.”At Riverside High School, Principal Michael Harris said this year administrators decided to eliminate the MAP test, which was previously given to ninth- and 12th-graders.
But the move didn’t exactly free up instructional time.The new suite of ACT tests simply took its place.