District to create task force on testing

One goal is "to make sure testing is not eclipsing everything else we do in the District," said SRC Chair Marjorie Neff.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia School District plans to convene an assessment task force to study the impact of all the tests administered to city students and make recommendations for changes.

Chris Schaffer, deputy chief for curriculum, instruction and assessment, said that the task force will include parents, teachers, community members, and perhaps students.

The goal is to have its members in place by the December break and start meeting in January to reconsider the District’s approach to testing.

"The task force will have access to all assessment information and staff to help inform our assessment plans for the future – inclusive of recommendations to adjust the frequency, duration, and types of assessments we administer. This group will consist of school and community members representative of the District’s landscape," Schaffer said.

How many members will be named, and how they will be chosen, is still being decided, Schaffer said.

"I want to get something that’s representative of everybody," he said – including parents and teachers who have been vocal in the opt-out movement that encourages families to decline to allow their children to take tests.

District officials said they were responding to several recent developments that highlight concerns about testing.

A two-year study on standardized testing in 66 big-city public school districts in the United States, released Oct. 25, found that students take an average of eight standardized tests per year, consuming between 20 and 25 hours of classroom time. It was commissioned in 2013 by the Council of the Great City Schools to better inform public debate about testing reform.

Michael Casserly, the Council’s executive director, said in a statement: “Everyone has some culpability in how much testing there is and how redundant and uncoordinated it is – Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, states, local school systems. … Everyone must play a role in improving this situation.”

At the same time, President Obama issued a statement that urged a rethinking of testing. In a video on the White House’s Facebook page, President Obama said, “In moderation, smart, strategic [testing] can help us measure our kids’ progress,” but "tests shouldn’t occupy too much classroom time or crowd out teaching and learning."

The president’s latest education policy called for states and districts to limit the time spent on standardized tests to no more than 2 percent of classroom hours. The president has called on Congress to make this limit a law.

Last spring, City Council passed a resolution urging the District to "analyze the financial, human and financial impact" of testing and take steps to minimize its use.

Another looming issue is that unless there is a change in state law, Pennsylvania students will be required to pass Keystone exams in English, algebra, and biology in order to graduate starting in 2017, and many will struggle to do so.

School Reform Commission Chair Marjorie Neff said that she wants the District’s task force "to be a stakeholder discussion, including the kids affected and parents."

Neff, former principal of Masterman middle and high school, said the task force will grapple with big questions.

"It boils down to that tension between how do we make sure we are holding kids and educators to high standards while at the same time not making these tests a barrier for next steps for kids," she said. The task force will also look at the amount of testing and the impact of high-stakes tests on the qualiy of instruction in the classroom.

Neff said that she would like to see the task force come up with two sets of recommendations: one for the administration of Gov. Wolf and Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera and another for internal use, "to make sure testing is not eclipsing everything else we do in the District."

The Council of the Great City Schools study found that in 8th grade, the most intensive year for testing, big-city public school students spend an average of 4.2 days, or 2.3 percent of all classroom time, taking standardized tests – not including the time used to prepare for these tests.

The study found no correlation between larger amounts of mandated test time and improved reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

The Wolf administration has also said it wants to re-evaluate the use of testing in schools in the commonwealth.

“Secretary Rivera and Gov. Wolf believe that while standardized tests can provide useful benchmarks for growth, they are not the sole indicator of student achievement,” Nicole Reigelman, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said in an email. “The administration is exploring additional means to more holistically assess student and school achievement.”

Robert McGrogan, head of Philadelphia’s principals’ union, said that the estimates of how many hours it takes to administer tests are likely understated.

“The whole day is really lost to the assessment," he said.

McGrogan said that, on days when testing is scheduled in the morning, shorter class periods and student frustration “make the post-test portion of the day a decompression period, and certainly not one where quality instruction is facilitated.”