"Don't label a school as failing one day and then throw your hands up and walk away from it the next. Don't tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend too much of a year preparing him to fill out a few bubbles in a standardized test...You didn't devote your lives to testing. You devoted it to teaching, and teaching is what you should be allowed to do." -- Candidate Barack Obama, Summer 2007

"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Not everything that can be counted counts...

...and not everything that counts can be counted.

Earlier this month the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education (NEIFPE) released a brochure titled, The Costs of High Stakes Testing: What Informed Citizens Need to Know about Standardized Testing in Our Public Schools. (Full disclosure: I'm a member of NEIFPE, edit the blog/web site, and was present at meetings where the brochure was edited for content.)

The brochure (also available as a pdf file) describes the testing program in Indiana's public schools. Tests are listed and are noted as being mandatory if they are required by the state. The brochure notes that testing costs the taxpayers of Indiana in excess of $46 million...money which NEIFPE, and I, believe can be better spent elsewhere.

[NOTE...the monetary cost of testing listed in the brochure does not include the time spent by each corporation and school in labor costs for test coordinators to instruct staff on the appropriate use of testing as required by the state DOE, the time needed to transport the tests to and from classrooms, time spent labeling and packaging tests -- boxing them up for mailing and for lots of other things which I am probably missing. If that was added in, the cost to the state of Indiana and its residents is likely to be much greater. Test coordinators generally have other titles and duties which must be set aside during the testing windows.]

The brochure also discusses suggested questions for parents and public school patrons, things to do to become more informed about testing or fight excessive testing, and some information about the amount of time spent on testing -- and related activities -- during the school year.

The NEIFPE brochure appeared on our (NEIFPE's) web site on September 3, 2012.

About a month later, a page titled The Truth About Testing was published on the Indiana DOE web site. The writer began,
A philosophical argument regarding the value of testing has recently resurfaced in Indiana.
Being the self-centered and self-absorbed person that I am, my first assumption was that this article from the DOE was a direct response to our brochure. However, when I read the DOE article a second time it became clear that it was not...here's why.

The writer of the article (for simplicity's sake, let's just call him/her Tony) claimed that
Critics of testing exaggerate the emphasis and time spent on testing, and they use it as an excuse for poor outcomes. The truth is only students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10 take tests required by federal or state law each year. Neither federal nor state law requires any testing for students in grades K, 1, 2, 9, 11 or 12. Said differently, of the 13 grade levels (K-12), students are not tested at six levels (nearly half of all grades).
First, if Tony had actually read our brochure he/she would have noticed that nowhere did we say that the time wasted on testing was responsible for "poor outcomes." My personal feeling is that schools which have consistently "poor outcomes" are struggling for a variety of reasons...lack of support from the DOE, high levels of poverty, high class sizes and few resources due to inadequate funding. Yes, it's true. I'm one of those people who thinks we should throw money at public schools...it seems to work so well for schools like the University of Chicago Lab School where Mayor Emanuel sends his children...or Sidwell Friends School where the President sends his children...or Belmont Hill School for Boys where Mitt Romney sent his children...but I digress.

The second reason that Tony's article could not have been referring to the NEIFPE brochure was the information it included about tests used in Indiana. The brochure clearly states that only certain tests are mandatory from the State DOE. The other tests, some of which are offered by the state, but not mandatory, are locally chosen. The excessive testing in Indiana schools, therefore, is not merely the fault of the State Department of Public Instruction or the US Department of Education. Children are overtested due to pressure at all levels of government...from the lowliest principal (no offense to my Administrator friends) to the most important person with public school responsibilities in the nation...which seems to be Bill Gates, apparently.

Tony continues...
Furthermore, the students who are tested spend fewer than six and a half hours during each school year taking the tests required by federal and state law...When considered in perspective, six and a half hours (or less, depending on grade level) out of a minimum of 900 is a reasonable amount of time to spend on tests required by federal and state law.
A table of "time a student spends on testing each year at each grade level" is included for our edification.

The NEIFPE brochure, on the other hand, states...
Elementary educators estimate they spend about six weeks of the 36 week school year on test preparation and administration. Tests focus on reading and math, leaving little time for the following:
  • Social Studies and Civics
  • Art and Music
  • Science and Physical Education
Again, Tony obviously didn't read the brochure since it plainly stated that the time estimated included test preparation as well as administration. Because of the high stakes nature of the tests, school systems, school leaders and teachers are pressured to help their students improve their scores through test preparation. In fact, in some schools the first two hours of every day is set aside for test prep in tested grades. It also seems apparent that Tony has never taught in a standardized tested classroom, otherwise he/she would know that high stakes testing takes a lot out of children and a wise teacher gives her class plenty of opportunity to let go of the stress associated with testing.

I'd like to note that I have actually taught tested grades (third, fourth, and sixth) during my years as a classroom teacher, and was a test coordinator (actually a co-coordinator with our wonderful guidance counselor) for many years after I left the classroom. So, since I have had actual real-life experience giving standardized tests to children, I know that there is more time spent in classrooms before and during testing than the actual time it takes to administer the test. Students need breaks, some of which are built in to the testing time. However, the high stakes aspect of the test causes much anxiety so extra time is often needed to let students wind down after testing...especially young children in third grade. This is, of course, in addition to any test preparation required by local schools and school corporations. Furthermore, NEIFPE's test list included locally required tests, as well as those from the state. So the amount of time given over to testing each year is very much more than what's listed in the DOE table.

Finally we are told,
Critics also argue standardized tests force teachers to "teach to the test." As long as the tests actually test the skills and content we want students to learn and know, "teaching to the test" should not be considered taboo. In fact, we should encourage teachers to help students meet the state standards and learn the content we believe will be fundamental to success in life.
Perhaps Tony doesn't know much about the education of children or tests and measurements in particular, but we know that standardized tests are useful for only one thing...testing the content included in the test. Tony apparently believes that Indiana's standardized tests account for everything which students need to know. Perhaps he/she should read one or all of the following,

What's Wrong With Standardized Tests?
They do not measure the ability to think deeply or creatively in any field. Their use encourages a narrowed curriculum, outdated methods of instruction, and harmful practices such as grade retention and tracking.
Why Standardized Tests Don't Measure Educational Quality
Employing standardized achievement tests to ascertain educational quality is like measuring temperature with a tablespoon. Tablespoons have a different measurement mission than indicating how hot or cold something is. Standardized achievement tests have a different measurement mission than indicating how good or bad a school is. Standardized achievement tests should be used to make the comparative interpretations that they were intended to provide. They should not be used to judge educational quality.
Standardized Testing and Its Victims
*The quality of instruction declines most for those who have least. Standardized tests tend to measure the temporary acquisition of facts and skills, including the skill of test-taking itself, more than genuine understanding. To that extent, the fact that such tests are more likely to be used and emphasized in schools with higher percentages of minority students (a fact that has been empirically verified) predictably results in poorer-quality teaching in such schools. The use of a high-stakes strategy only underscores the preoccupation with these tests and, as a result, accelerates a reliance on direct-instruction techniques and endless practice tests. "Skills-based instruction, the type to which most children of color are subjected, tends to foster low-level uniformity and subvert academic potential,"
It seems to me that Tony really has had very little experience teaching in Indiana's (or any states) public schools. As a matter of fact, it's been suggested that the DOE article wasn't written by anyone at the DOE at all, but instead, someone from McGraw-Hill, the publishers of Indiana's standardized tests and a contributor to State Superintendent Tony Bennett's reelection campaign to the tune of (at least) $5000. In any case, Tony might want to consult with actual teachers before spouting off about the nature of testing (Tony, if you're reading this, shoot me an email...I'll make time for you).

Here's an interesting list of things not measured on tests. Some of them might be worthwhile for our students to develop (and for certain members of the Indiana DOE as well). Feel free to add your own.

[UPDATE] Another blogger comments on the DOE's Truth about Testing at "Truth" Really?


Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody, have teamed up with a plan to flood the White House email with letters in support of -- and against the privatization of -- public education. While President Obama's reelection is in no way guaranteed, he is, of the two main party candidates, the one who is most likely to listen. Sample letters and suggestions are on Diane Ravitch's blog.

There is no guarantee that the President will listen, but it can't hurt to let him know that there are many people who are unhappy with the corporate privatization of America's public education system.

For more information about participating, see Instructions for the October 17 Campaign for Our Public Schools.


Stop the Testing Insanity!



Eileen said...

Not to mention the extra time for those students in special education that get double time and accommodations on ISTEP. Then there is the requirement that all students in the same grade level are administered the tests on the same day and at the same time so that students don't share information from the test with each other. There is also the make-up testing time that pulls students from the classroom.

Stu said...

Right...thanks for that. In addition, the make up tests take whoever has to administer the tests away from whatever duties they were supposed to be doing.

I was a pullout reading specialist. During test time I had to cancel students in need of help in reading in order to test students with accommodations and later to do make up tests. Our guidance counselor did the same...she had to cancel whatever was on her schedule to do them, too.

Then we had to cancel more students and services in order to sort, label and box up the tests. I doubt that was factored in to the DOE's time for taking tests.

The extra work has an impact on students. All the time I spent working on standardized tests was time I missed working with the students who needed the most help.