Testing worries

Feelings mixed on where to go from here on testing

A study done for state Department of Education has found significant worries about the burden of state and district testing but reported somewhat mixed views about the details of what should be done next.

Educators, administrators and parents who were surveyed for the study generally agreed that last spring’s round of testing went better than anticipated and produced limited difficulties, especially for students. There was agreement that schools need more computers and other devices for online tests, and that the number and length of tests should be trimmed.

“They want fewer, shorter tests,” Sheila Arredondo, one of the researchers who worked on the study, told the State Board of Education during a briefing last week.

There was less agreement on how to accomplish those things, and there were significant differences of opinion among urban, suburban and rural districts.

The State Standards and Assessments Task Force will be briefed on the study today. The review was launched late last year by CDE as public and legislative concerns about testing were building ahead of the full launch of new online tests in 2015. The task force subsequently was created by the legislature. (Get more details on the group here.)

WestEd, a California-based education-consulting organization, did the review at no cost to the state. (WestEd and similar regional comprehensive centers around the nation are federally funded.)

The study was designed to gauge educator and parent attitudes about tests and was not intended to review the content of state academic standards or tests nor provide a cost-benefit analysis of assessments.

In a first phase, researchers conducted 11 focus groups and did a survey of district testing coordinators last winter and spring before the start of annual testing, which this year included new online social studies and science tests and practice PARCC tests in 96 districts.

In the second phase, after testing was finished, researchers had follow-up conversations and interviews, conducted another focus group and re-surveyed district assessment coordinators. Out of 178 school districts, 87 coordinators completed the nine-question survey, 72 percent of those from rural districts, 14 urban and 13 percent suburban.

A report summary cautioned, “Results may not generalize to the larger population. Districts [were] weighted equally – rather than by student enrollment, thus views of rural districts with small student populations have proportionally higher impact on results.”

What the survey found

Here’s the report’s top-level summary of the feedback received about options for changing the testing system:

  • Online testing – Don’t revert to paper-and-pencil tests.
  • Technology – Districts need emergency funds to buy more computers, laptops and tablets.
  • Length of assessments – There’s strong support for fewer, shorter tests.
  • Number of tests – There’s also substantial support for optional school readiness tests and reduction of testing to federal minimum requirements – basically language arts and math tests from 3rd to 9th grade and once in high school.

Surveyors posed several questions and suggestions to district testing coordinators during the second round of work. Here’s a summary of the responses to key questions. Respondents were given four test-reduction options and asked to rate each on a five-step scale.

  • Technology readiness – The top priority for respondents was emergency funding to buy more computers and devices.
  • Amount of testing – Some 45 percent “strongly” supported elimination of new school readiness evaluations, followed by 43 percent in strong support of cutting Colorado testing back to only what the federal government requires.
  • Length of tests – Some 46 percent strongly supported shortening social studies tests while 43 percent had the sentiment about language arts and math tests.
  • Top concern – Asked to rank the biggest testing implementation issues for primary and secondary schools, respondents listed “too many assessments” as the top concern.

People who were surveyed also were asked yes-no-neutral questions on other issues, including:

  • Flexibility – Allow districts to give English tests online but math tests on paper if they choose. 38 percent support, 37 percent oppose, 25 percent neutral.
  • Third-grade tests – Give paper-and-pencil tests to students in 3rd grade, the first year students take standardized tests. 43 percent support, 39 percent oppose, 18 percent neutral.
  • High school test reduction – Eliminate all high school standardized testing expect ACT. 46 percent support, 40 percent oppose, 14 percent neutral.
  • High school test timing – Give science and social studies tests in different years, rather than both in 12th grade. 65 percent support, 13 percent oppose, 22 percent neutral.

See details on responses here:

The testing task force is assigned to make recommendations to the legislature on a variety of testing issues. During their discussion last week, members of the State Board expressed interest in making their own suggestions, and testing is expected to again be a major focus for the board at its September meeting.

Q&A

This Wayne Township school made big gains on ISTEP, and its principal said teachers sticking around was key.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township participate in an English lesson.

As the kindergartners at Robey Elementary School shuffled down the hallway in a single-file line, the wings on their festive construction paper bat headbands flapped softly.

When Principal Ben Markley walked by, the kindergartners jostled to greet him, one after another giving a tiny wave by bending their index fingers up and down. Bat wings flapped furiously.

“Are we working hard today?” Markley asked as he approached, returning what he dubbed the “kindergarten wave” by waggling his own index finger.

“Yes!” the kids chorused back excitedly.

Markley continued down the hallway, explaining that he created the wave to give some of the school’s youngest students a special way to connect with him — a better option than running up and gluing themselves to his legs, he said.

He is now in his fifth year at Robey, a school with more than 750 students located in the northwest corner of Wayne Township. In fact, Markley has spent his entire career as an educator in Wayne Township. And he’s not alone: Of the 20 Robey teachers who taught grades that took ISTEP last year, 19 stayed on from the year before.

Markley says that retaining teachers and staff has afforded students immense benefits — not the least of which that the school made some of the largest gains of any township school on last year’s ISTEP test.

Chalkbeat sat down with Markley recently to talk about the school’s progress. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Your passing rate for English and math went up about 8 percentage points from last year, and your letter grade went up from a B to an A. What was your reaction when you learned that?

Two years ago we were pretty disappointed with some of our scores. We saw some areas in math that we thought we should be addressing a little differently — the way our teachers were thinking about curriculum and really the depth and the rigor that we were presenting to our students.

There was this pretty big gap between what we were asking our kids to do and what was on the state assessment. We talked a lot about that last year. We spent a lot of our professional development time thinking about what are the deeper thinking skills that students need, especially in math. We sometimes called it how do we get kids to grapple with problems. How do we get them to show perseverance and dedication and be able to learn from mistakes — to make a mistake and accept that mistake and say, how do we grow from this?

We haven’t had the teacher turnover that some schools have had. And so (teachers within every grade) are becoming content and curricular experts. When you put smart people in the room together talking about how they teach something, they are able to share lots of great ideas.

To see that pan out in improved performance — that’s what you’re so excited about. That’s why you put all that effort and time and energy and debating and conversation in, because then our hard work paid off, and that’s rewarding for teachers.

What is your school community like?

We are about 52 to 53 percent free and reduced lunch this year. We’re about 50 percent white, about 35 to 40 percent African American and about 10 percent Hispanic.

It feels almost neighborhood- or community-like being back here. I think families know that they can come here and they can partner with staff members to try to find the best ways to help their children. We serve rural families and out-of-district families who choose to come to Robey, and we take pride in that fact.

What is your approach to leadership?

I think we have very talented, dedicated, smart people, and so I feel like my job is to get them the resources that they need. I trust the decisions that teachers make. So I want them to feel empowered to make those decisions and suggest those changes and improvements that help us move forward as a school.

I talked about staff continuity already. I think that is something I maybe even initially underestimated how important it was. It fosters a sense of collegiality. They know they’ve got each others’ backs.

It also just gives them time to wrap their minds around our curriculum. The first time you teach it, that’s a big undertaking. It’s overwhelming. And so to have consistency (with our teaching staff) from year to year … was critical to our success.

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.

 

Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.