This month third grade students in Indiana have had their instruction interrupted so that they could take the ISTEP Applied Skills tests, and the Indiana IREAD-3 test.
Next month the second part of the ISTEP will be administered (testing window: April 28 through May 13).
A YEAR’S WORTH OF TESTING
Last school year (2012-13) I asked a friend who teaches third grade in one of our public schools how much time was spent on testing. He thought about ISTEP, IREAD-3, Acuity, DIBELS, and some other locally chosen tests (See here for a list of state assessments) and came up with this response…
Actual time spent on doing the tests = 54 hours, add an extra 20 hours for DIBELS…
Add another 25 hours for test prep. This would be test strategies, getting familiar with the format but primarily a huge chunk of review for the tests or trying to quickly cover a topic in case it’s on the test but we have not had the chance to teach it yet.
That’s about 100 hours devoted to testing or test prep…and doesn’t include what I would consider to be appropriate classroom assessments such as reading comprehension tests, math quizzes, spelling tests, and content area chapter tests.
The school day for elementary students in our district is about 6 3/4 hours. That’s been extended now in order to make up for over a dozen snow days this year, but I’ll use 6 3/4 hours as the length of an elementary student’s school day in our school system. Subtract about 45 minutes for lunch and recess…another half hour for art, music or PE each day…plus time for announcements, the pledge and a moment of silence, walking in the hallways to and from lunch and other transitions, ending instruction in time to get ready to go places like a special area class or at the end of the day dismissal and we’re at about 5 hours as the length of an instructional day. A simple division problem converts those approximately 100 hours devoted to testing into about 20 instructional days.
So, about 20 school days — nearly 3 weeks of instructional time — is devoted to testing and test preparation in third grade. The length of the school day varies of course depending on the school — secondary students have a longer school day, but they also have more and longer standardized tests to take. That’s more than a full academic year of testing and test related activities by the time a student graduates from high school.
MISUSE OF TESTS
What is the purpose of all that testing?
Achievement tests are primarily used to determine how much of a particular curriculum students have learned (criterion-referenced tests) or how students compare to other students who have taken the same test (norm-referenced tests). Both types of tests have limitations. Neither type of test can test the entire curriculum. There are aspects of student learning that cannot be tested, like perseverance, excitement, leadership, reliability and a sense of wonder. Neither type of test is value free, which means that some students will miss test items because they are members of a particular cultural, ethnic or socio-economic group. The scoring of multiple test items is objective, however, the quality of the questions determines whether or not a test is free from bias. Even when test scorers use rubrics, there is some subjectivity involved in scoring short answer or essay questions. For a good summary of the problems with standardized tests see What’s Wrong With Standardized Tests? by The National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
In addition, standardized tests measure only a small part of what goes into a student’s learning. Out-of-school factors weigh heavily on student achievement. Things like low birth weight, adequate medical and dental care, food insecurity, environmental pollution, and family stresses can affect student achievement. Teachers matter, of course, but there is a much larger impact on achievement from outside the classroom.
…roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms
Standardized tests, then, don’t measure everything that goes on in a classroom…nor do they measure only what goes on in a classroom.
In Indiana test scores are used for more than simply measuring achievement.
- A student who fails IREAD-3 can be retained in third grade
- Failed ECAs in High School can be used to refuse diplomas to students
- Student test scores are used in teacher evaluations
- Student test scores are used to determine teacher pay
- School letter grades are based in large part on student test scores
- Persistently low student test scores can mean state takeover of schools
All these uses of student test scores are inappropriate. The tests were developed to measure student achievement and, while they don’t even do that well, that is all they should be used for. They should not be used to measure teacher and school effectiveness, or to deny promotion or graduation of students.
Finally, tests don’t improve schools. Schools are improved by
- finding ways to help students deal with out-of-school factors interfering with achievement (such as the effects of poverty)
- lowering class sizes
- supporting a complete curriculum with the fine arts and physical education
- supporting school libraries
- providing early childhood programs
- providing well maintained school facilities
- providing funding appropriate to the needs of the students.
High stakes testing is harmful to schools and students. Tests are being misused to the point of child (and public education) abuse. And last night I read that Indiana is going to add another layer of testing for the 2014-2015 school year.
Students will take both the state’s current test, the ISTEP+, and a new test called the College- and Career-Readiness Transition Assessment, or CCRTA, in spring 2015.
“It is two tests,” says Indiana Department of Education Director of Assessment Michele Walker. “It’s two separate sets of standards that are being assessed there.”
Two tests are necessary because of the ongoing dispute over the Common Core. Eager to exit the national initiative to share academic standards, Indiana lawmakers have directed education officials to administer the ISTEP+ next year. But Indiana also promised the U.S. Department of Education it would give a test assessing college- and career-readiness at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
Most Indiana public school students already take more than one standardized test in a year so the title of this article is misleading — it implies that everyone just takes the ISTEP. First of all, the ISTEP itself is two tests — an applied skills portion and a multiple choice portion taken at two different times during the year. Second, there’s also IREAD-3, ECAs, LAS Links, mCLASS, and Acuity…
How much more instructional time is going to be wasted when CCRTA is added to the already excessive list of tests? How much more learning time is going to be lost to the excessive, obsessive, and abusive use of standardized tests?
United Opt Out: The Movement to End Corporate Education Reform.
All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.