Test anxiety

School board testing discontent rumbles louder as more districts ask for waivers

Two more Colorado school boards have passed resolutions requesting waivers from state testing requirements, even though federal law bars such exemptions.

Boards in Montrose County and Dolores County both unanimously passed resolutions earlier this month. The Montrose resolution petitions “the Colorado State Board of Education for a 5-year waiver from PARCC and CMAS testing requirements.”

As Dolores Superintendent Bruce Hankins readily acknowledged, “Most people realize it’s a symbolic gesture, but I think it’s a gesture that needs to be out there.”

The board in Colorado Springs District 11 was first out of the box this year when it passed a similar resolution in September. The district since has decided not to press its request with the state Department of Education. But board vice president Elaine Naleski told the Colorado Springs Gazette, “We’re not ready to just drop everything. We’re still having the conversations.” (See full Gazette story here.)

Also in September, delegates attending a Colorado Association of School Boards meetng passed resolutions calling on the state to reduce testing to federal minimum requirements, allow parents to opt out of state tests without penalty to districts and to let districts use approved alternative tests instead of the state’s CMAS program.

“We hope that many, many districts will follow suit,” said Montrose Superintendent Mark MacHale, while noting, “We’re under no fantasy that the state board will grant this.” But it’s important to raise the issue, he said, “Because most of us feel our voices have been lost.”

Prompted by district concerns and State Board questions, CDE officials recently queried the U.S. Department of Education about testing flexibility. The answer was that the state has few if any options on measures suggested by testing critics, such as sample testing and use of local tests. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story for more details.)

Jane Urschel, CASB deputy executive director, said it’s hard to guess how many more school boards may pass testing resolutions but noted, “At the CASB delegate assembly the conversation was that there’s too much assessment, and the majority of people feel that way.”

Paula Stephenson of the Rural Alliance said small districts feels their concerns haven’t been addressed in the past. “As a result, more and more of our member districts, with the support of their parents and communities, are standing up and saying, ‘This is not OK. We will no longer stand idly by and voluntarily participate in reform measures that we know are harmful to our schools and students.’”

Testing worries aren’t limited to only small districts. Several big-district superintendents who participated in a Denver panel discussion on Wednesday were critical of the state’s current testing system. (See this story for what they said.)

Debate about the state testing system has been bubbling for a year but seems to have intensified in recent months.

New online social studies and science tests were given in two grades last spring, and the somewhat sobering scores were released just this week (see story).

Next spring’s online language arts and math tests for grades 3-11 are fast approaching, raising anxiety levels in many districts, and the testing window for 12th grade science and social studies tests opens next week.

MacHale is skeptical of the value of those tests, noting, “We will get the results back when they’re in college.”

“What are we going to do with that?” asked Hankins.

An appointed Standards and Assessments Task Force has been studying the issue over the summer and fall and is supposed to make recommendations to the 2015 legislature. The group hasn’t yet made any major decisions and has three more meetings scheduled.

The State Board has discussed testing several times in recent months, and the issue is expected to come up again in November. Montrose district leaders want to make their case to the board in person.

The upcoming legislative session will be key. “I think people may be waiting to see what happens at the Capitol,” Urschel said. “Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans in control, one of the top issues is going to be assessment.”

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

a failure of accountability

High-stakes testing may push struggling teachers to younger grades, hurting students

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade are often free of the high-stakes testing common in later grades — but those years are still high-stakes for students’ learning and development.

That means it’s a big problem when schools encourage their least effective teachers to work with their youngest students. And a new study says that the pressure of school accountability systems may be encouraging exactly that.

“Evidence on the importance of early-grades learning for later life outcomes suggests that a system that pushes schools to concentrate ineffective teachers in the earliest grades could have serious unintended consequences,” write study authors Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt and Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb of Stanford.

The research comes at an opportune time. All 50 states are in the middle of crafting new systems designed to hold schools accountable for student learning. And this is just the latest study to point out just how much those systems matter — for good and for ill.

The study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, focuses on Miami-Dade County schools, the fourth-largest district in the country, from 2003 to 2014. Florida had strict accountability rules during that period, including performance-based letter grades for schools. (Those policies have been promoted as a national model by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his national education reform outfit, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previously served on the board.)

The trio of researchers hypothesized that because Florida focuses on the performance of students in certain grades and subjects — generally third through 10th grade math and English — less-effective teachers would get shunted to other assignments, like early elementary grades or social studies.

That’s exactly what they found.

In particular, elementary teachers effective at raising test scores tended to end up teaching grades 3-6, while lower-performing ones moved toward early grades.

While that may have helped schools look better, it didn’t help students. Indeed, the study finds that being assigned a teacher in early elementary school who switched from a higher grade led to reduced academic achievement, effects that persisted through at least third grade.

The impact was modest in size, akin to being assigned a novice teacher as opposed to a more experienced one.

The study is limited in that it focuses on just a single district, albeit a very large one — a point the authors acknowledge. Still, the results are consistent with past research in North Carolina and Florida as a whole, and district leaders elsewhere have acknowledged responding to test pressure in the same way.

“There was once upon a time that, when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2,” schools chief Sharon Griffin of Shelby County schools in Memphis said earlier this year. “We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up.”

While the Florida study can’t definitively link the migration of teachers to the state’s accountability system, evidence suggests that it was a contributing factor.

For one, the pattern is more pronounced in F-rated schools, which face the greatest pressure to raise test scores. The pattern is also stronger when principals have more control over staffing decisions — consistent with the idea that school leaders are moving teachers around with accountability systems in mind.

Previous research of policies like No Child Left Behind that threaten to sanction schools with low test scores have found both benefits and downsides. On the positive side, accountability can lead to higher achievement on low-stakes exams and improved instruction; studies of Florida’s system, in particular, have found a number of positive effects. On the negative side, high-stakes testing has caused cheating, teaching to the test, and suspensions of students unlikely to test well.

So how can districts avoid the unintended consequences for young students documented by the Miami-Dade study?

One idea is to emphasize student proficiency in third grade, a proxy for how well schools have taught kids in kindergarten, first and second grades.

Scholars generally say that focusing on progress from year to year is a better gauge of school effectiveness than student proficiency. But a heavily growth-based system could actually give schools an incentive to lower student achievement in early grades.

“These results do make an argument for weighting [proficiency] in those early tests to essentially guard against totally ignoring those early grades,” said Grissom, who also noted that states could make more efforts to directly measure performance of the youngest students.

But Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, was more skeptical of this approach.

“It’s not as if states are going to add grades K-2 testing, so schools and districts will always have this incentive (or think they do),” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “I think measurement is always going to be an issue in those early grades.”