testing testing

New York has debated ‘innovative’ tests. But what does that actually mean?

In New York, the annual state tests still mean the usual multiple-choice questions and short writing prompts — and that’s not likely to change soon.

State officials recently chose not to apply to join a federal “innovative testing” program, which would have triggered an overhaul of the math and English tests that students in grades 3 to 8 take each year. (They cited the cost and difficulty of rolling out the new tests on the tight timeline required by the program.)

Yet in a state where nearly one in five families choose to boycott the exams — which many say do a poor job measuring students’ learning — pressure remains on policymakers to come up with new and better tests. They appear to have some interest in moving in that direction: The state’s education policy-making body, the Board of Regents, has established a workgroup focused partly on testing, and the state education commissioner has expressed interest in alternative graduation exams and new types of science and social studies tests.

If New York does pursue “innovative” assessments, what might they look like?

To answer that, we found four real-world examples of alternative assessments — two used in New York City, and two from other states. While each has its drawbacks, they show that “testing” doesn’t have to mean shading in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil.

Example 1: Tasks used to evaluate teacher effectiveness (New York City)

Who takes them? Students in all grades, in subjects including math, English and the arts

What are they? Essays and short tasks

As part of New York City’s teacher evaluation system, schools can choose from a menu of assessments meant to measure how much teachers have helped their students learn. Among those “Measures of Student Learning” are tasks that require students to make an argument in a written essay by citing examples from texts they are provided.

Other kinds of “MOSL’s,” as they’re often called, go beyond essays. Teachers can administer “running records,” where they assess individual students’ English skills as they read a series of texts out loud. A visual-arts assessment asks students to draw a still-life picture.

What do they look like? A 12th-grade English test from several years ago asks students to answer the question, “Should individuals enlist in the military and fight for their country?” In order to make their case, students must read and cite a poem and a portion of President Woodrow Wilson’s address to Congress.

What are the drawbacks? They are similar to standardized tests

The city teachers union negotiated with the city to include these tests in teacher evaluations, yet many teachers and school leaders have complained that they take up too much class time. Others question whether the assessments fairly measure students’ ability in subjects like art.

“Art is subjective,” said Jake Jacobs, a middle-school art teacher at Bronx Park Middle School. “If somebody is drawing something, who’s to say whether that drawing is good or bad?”  

Example 2: Projects required for graduation (New York City)

Who takes them? Students at 38 New York City high schools in the “Performance Standards Consortium”

What are they? Months-long projects

The consortium was established in the 1990s to bring together New York City educators seeking an alternative to traditional standardized tests. Today, schools in that group have state permission to substitute long-term projects for several of the Regents exams that students must pass in order to graduate. At those schools, each student must complete a literary essay, solve a complex math problem, design a science experiment, and complete a research paper in order to earn a diploma.

In their junior or senior years, they present their projects to a panel of judges, who evaluate whether the work meets the consortium’s requirements.

Sample questions: According to consortium materials, one student wrote a paper titled, “What Role Do Black Characters Play in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories?” Another produced a science experiment called, “How Does a Garter Snake Detect Its Prey?” Another wrote a research paper titled, “Who Or What Is Responsible for the End of Slavery in the United States?”

What are the drawbacks? Heavy workload for educators and students

Schools in the consortium must spend a lot of time training teachers to oversee students’ projects and ensuring that the work is held to the same standards across the consortium. For that reason, even Ann Cook, executive director and co-founder of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, says it would be difficulty to spread this model across the entire state.

“Could every kid in the state be doing this? I’d probably say no,” Cook said. “And the reason is that you have to have a faculty that is interested and wants to do it. They should want to opt into this because it takes a lot of work in the school.”

Example 3: Real-world problems (New Hampshire)

Who takes them? Students in grades K-12 in math, English, and science

What are they? Tasks based on real-world scenarios

New Hampshire students take traditional standardized exams once in elementary, middle, and high school. In the other years, they take alternative assessments after they finish studying units tied to the state standards. Called “Performance Assessment of Competency Education,” or PACE tests, they challenge students to apply skills they learn in class to real-world problems.

Sample question: After learning how to calculate volume, high school geometry students are given a task where they assume the role of a town planner. Their job is to design a water tower that can hold enough water to support the town’s growing population, but which requires a limited amount of material to build. The project, which students typically finish in a couple hours, must include a cover page, models or scale drawings, the calculations students made, and a written analysis of their design.

What are the drawbacks? Costly and difficult to scale

Though New Hampshire started experimenting with the “PACE” tests more than three years ago, they still have only been rolled out in a fraction of the state’s school districts. The state also had to rely partly on philanthropic funds to develop the expensive assessments, according to Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment, who helped New Hampshire with its testing experiment.

Because of their high cost and difficulty to roll out statewide, Marion advised New York against adopting similar tests.

Example 4: Student-work portfolios (Vermont)

Who takes them? Previously, students in grades 4 and 8 in math and English

What are they? Portfolios of student work

In the early 1990s, Vermont schools began collecting pieces of student work throughout the year. Students stuffed portfolios with letters they’d written, poems, and math problems, which were then sent to the state for review.

Sample questions:  In a fourth-grade writing portfolio, students had to include their best piece of writing, a letter explaining what they’d written, a written response to a book or current issue, and a poem, short story, or personal narrative, according to a 1992 report co-authored by Daniel Koretz, an education professor at Harvard.

What are the drawbacks? Hard to standardize

Vermont eventually scrapped the portfolio system. Officials decided that it was too hard to standardize them: The difficulty of the teacher-created math problems that students completed varied from school to school, for instance, and some students got help from their parents on certain projects while others didn’t, according to Koretz.

You can’t realistically compare a piece a student did alone,” he said, “with one that another student did with help from a parent — say, one with a degree in physics.”

help wanted

Will third time be a charm? Tennessee searches again for online testing company

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen answers questions Thursday at a news conference about changes to Tennessee's testing program. The changes were supported by Dale Lynch (right), executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

After firing one testing company and hiring another in a pinch, Tennessee plans to launch a fresh search this fall for vendors — forging ahead with its switch to computerized exams, albeit more slowly than initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Thursday that the state will seek proposals from one or more companies to take over its troubled standardized testing program beginning in the 2019-20 school year. A track record of successful online testing is a must, she said.

Questar, which has handled the job the last two school years, will continue to oversee the state tests known as TNReady this year under an amended contract. Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said the company plans to pursue the new contract, too.

“We anticipate successful fall and spring administrations and hope to be afforded the opportunity to continue the momentum,” he told Chalkbeat.

McQueen said the state is ordering numerous changes next school year under Questar, including a modified timeline for transitioning from paper to computerized exams.

Instead of following the state’s initial game plan to have most students testing online next year, only high schoolers will stick with computers for their exams in 2018-19. All students in grades 3-8 — some of whom tested online this spring — will take their TNReady tests on paper.

The exception will be Tennessee’s new science test. Because that assessment is based on new academic standards and won’t count toward student grades or teacher evaluations in its first year, students in grades 5-8 will take it online, while grades 3-4 will test on paper. The idea is that the “field test” provides an opportunity for fifth-graders and up to gain online testing experience in a low-risk environment.

Even with technical problems hampering online testing two of the last three years, McQueen made it clear that computerized exams are the future for all Tennessee students if they want to keep pace with their peers nationally.

“Tennessee is one of less than 10 states who still have a paper test in our lower grade levels,” McQueen said during a news conference.

Local school leaders are equally committed to computerized testing, according to Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.   

“We do not want to go back to paper and pencil,” Lynch said. “Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee.”

"Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee."Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

All of the changes are in response to the series of technical issues that frequently interrupted testing this year, exasperating students and teachers and prompting an emergency state law that rendered the scores mostly inconsequential for one year.

“Teachers, students and families deserve a testing process they can have confidence in, and we are doing everything possible to meet that responsibility,” McQueen said. “We are always committed to listening and improving, and we’ll continue to do just that.”

Questar is Tennessee’s second testing company since 2016, when the state entered the era of TNReady, a new assessment aligned to new academic standards and billed as harder to game. The switch to computerized testing was part of that package.

McQueen fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. after its online rollout failed on the first day of testing and led to the cancellation of most state exams that year. Questar, which had come in second for the contract, was brought on as an emergency vendor for $30 million a year. Questar’s two-year contract ends in November, but McQueen wants an extension in order to complete testing for the 2018-19 school year.

The search for a new vendor — or combination of vendors — could be tricky. Only about a half dozen companies can provide online testing for a state the size of Tennessee. That’s why the state Department of Education’s invitation for companies to submit proposals will be structured so that different vendors can bid on different pieces of the work.

“What we’ve learned over time is that there are few vendors who do all of those components well, but some vendors do some pieces of it much better than others,” McQueen said. “We’re going to look for those who have a track record of success online and who we think can manage our program well.”

The state already has taken a step toward that approach. Last month, McQueen announced that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over this year’s TNReady design work, such as devising questions and exam instructions. The change will allow Questar to focus on giving and scoring the test and verifying and reporting the results. (ETS also owns Questar. Read more here.)

The legislature’s fiscal review committee recently approved that change, including $12.5 million to pay for ETS’ services, although state officials expect the extra money will be offset by re-negotiating down the cost of Questar’s current contract.

Next Generation

Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry, not memorization

Jana Thomas watches the progress of her fourth-grade students as they learn about the effects water and land have on each other at Chamberlin Academy, an elementary school in the Harrison district. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

New science standards adopted by a divided Colorado State Board of Education call on students to learn by puzzling through problems in the natural world rather than by listening to facts from a teacher.

The new standards, largely based on Next Generation Science Standards already in use in whole or in part in 38 states, represent the most significant change to what Colorado students will be expected to know in this round of revisions to state standards.

The State Board of Education reviews academic standards every six years. That process concluded Wednesday with the adoption of standards in comprehensive health and physical education, reading, writing and communicating, and science. The board had previously adopted new standards in social studies, math, world languages, arts, and computer science, among others. Most of those changes were considered relatively minor.

The new science standards, which were developed based on years of research into how people learn science, are considered a major change. They focus more on using scientific methods of inquiry than on memorization. In a time when we can look up literally any fact on our phones – and when scientific knowledge continues to evolve – supporters of the approach say it’s more important for students to understand how scientists reach conclusions and how to assess information for themselves than it is for them to know the periodic table by heart.

Melissa Campanella, a Denver science teacher, is already using Next Generation-based standards in her classroom. Earlier this year, she described a lesson on particle collisions as an example.

In the past, she would have given a lecture on the relevant principles, then handed her students a step-by-step lab exercise to illustrate it. Now, she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Students make observations and try to figure out what might be behind the differences. Only after sharing their ideas with each other would they read about the collision model of reactions and revise their own models.

Supporters of this approach say students learn the necessary facts about science along the way and understand and retain the material better.

Critics fear that not all classroom teachers will be capable of delivering the “aha” moments and that students could miss out on critical information that would prepare them for more advanced study.

That fear was one reason all three Republican members of the state board voted no on the new standards. They also disliked the way the standards treated climate change as a real phenomenon. Nationally, the standards have drawn opposition from religious and cultural conservatives over climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth.

Some Democratic members of the board started out as skeptics but were won over by the overwhelming support for the new standards that they heard from science teachers.

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat who represents the northwest suburbs of Denver, said no one she talked to in her district wanted to keep the old standards.

“Most people expressed outright that they felt comfortable with the amount of resources they have (for implementation), and they were enthused about the possibilities presented here,” she said.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, school districts will continue to set their own curriculum – and that’s one point of ongoing concern even for board members who support the change. The state has very limited authority over implementation.

“If we were a state where we had more control over curriculum, some of those concerns would not be so great that students might not learn certain material,” said board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat.