When is standardized testing in a school too much?

Participants in a panel discussion tonight at the Central Library disagreed about whether Indiana had crossed that line, but most thought the state was at least skating close to the line that divides too much from just enough.

“There’s a fine line between data that helps me be a great teacher and an enormous amount of testing that our kids go through every day,” said Whitney Newton, an instructional coach and testing coordinator at Indianapolis’ Harshman Middle School.

The library, WFYI public broadcasting and Chalkbeat hosted the event. Panelists were Newton, Michele Walker, director of assessment for the Indiana Department of Education, IUPUI education professor Hardy Murphy, Covenant Christian High School junior Gavin Craig, Warren Township school Superintendent Dena Cushenberry and Derek Redelman, who just joined USA funds as a program officer and formerly was vice president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Murphy and Craig said that tests are definitely needed, but the results can easily be misinterpreted to a point where people think that’s all that happens in schools. Students are more than their scores, they said.

“You’re quantifying those teenagers with those numbers,” Craig said of high school end-of-course exams in algebra and English. “I think (testing) is really the best way because you can’t qualify every student in the nation. But I don’t think that should be the final defining basis that you have for all the students.”

Newton agreed and cautioned against labeling kids, even in the minds of educators, based on how they score on tests.

“You don’t have a ‘pass plus’ kid or a ‘fail’ kid,” she said. “The labeling piece is a good warning for teachers to always be keeping in mind.”

Yet state standardized test scores have very real consequences for schools, factoring into A to F accountability grades and teacher evaluations. Those grades have consequences for districts and communities, too, Cushenberry said.

“We are preparing kids to be those democratic citizens,” she said. “But when a parent is coming to town and they’re looking for a great school, they’re certainly not going to go where there’s an F.”

In a similar discussion on Sunday at the library, parents groups called for families to “opt out” of tests by refusing to take them.

Is that even allowed under state law? Technically yes, Walker said. But she urged parents not to take that step.

Walker said Indiana doesn’t have an opt-out policy. That means parents can keep students home if they choose, but schools are still responsible for those students. Missing students are counted as zeroes, which can harm their schools’ A to F grade, their teachers’ evaluation scores and other accountability measures.

Walker and Redelman said Indiana does the right amount of testing to prepare students to leave high school ready for college and jobs. But schools might be adding on too many extra tests.

“Kids are tested all the time,” Redelman said. “There are a lot of assessments that teachers are giving, that schools are giving that are not required … maybe you don’t need all that. It’s certainly not required by the state of by the (federal government) or by anyone else.”

And when it comes down to it, Murphy said, all students have to take tests, and schools need to prepare them to be successful, in school and beyond.

“Regardless of whether the tests are good or bad, the reality is all students will have to be empowered to negotiate the obstacles in front of them,” Murphy said. “At some point in the game, they will step out into the world as adults.”