Testing Creates Uproar
Ohanian Comment: State officials call this child abuse growing pains.
Teachers were told new state-required tests given to students across Alaska for the first time this week would take between two and four hours a day over a three-day period.
That's not what happened.
"None of our students were done in that time," said Laurel Vorachek, Anchorage School District coordinator of districtwide assessments. "We had students testing for six, seven, eight hours. And we had students testing after the end of the school day, at some schools until 5:30.
"It is not appropriate for a third- or fourth-grader to be testing for three days in a row, six hours a day."
Some test booklets were missing pages. Teachers reported reading passages in some sections were too long for younger kids. A school in the Mat-Su Borough reported one child stayed at school until 6:30 p.m. to finish a test. Nick Stayrook, chief information services officer for Fairbanks schools, said the test booklets contained errors that thorough proofreading should have caught.
The tests carry more weight now than ever. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires public schools to show annual progress on test scores. At schools where half or more students come from low-income families, falling short of that means consequences, from offering students transportation to another school to eventually replacing staff or having the state take over the school's operation.
State education officials defended the new exams Friday. The tests are indeed longer, because of federal law, said Les Morse, director of assessment and accountability for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
The old exams didn't test students on all Alaska standards -- what students at each grade level are supposed to learn, Morse said. Failing to test students on those standards could result in loss of federal funding, he said.
"There will be some growing pains," Morse said. "But we've got to test all of our standards. It is going to be a bit longer, and maybe there wasn't enough forewarning about that."
The new tests for grades three through nine were approved a year ago, when the state awarded a $5 million contract to develop them to Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp. Attempts to interview company officials Friday were unsuccessful.
The exams are "criterion-referenced" -- meaning students either pass or fail them. There are no time limits. Students used to take this type of test, the Benchmark Exam, in grades three, six and eight. In grades four, five, seven and nine, they took a "norm-referenced" test, which compared a student's score against the average score of a national sample group of students.
"The (new) tests probably are more difficult, and more accurate, in terms of measuring whether students are at grade level," said Harry Gamble, a state education spokesman. "That's the big picture, and if that's what people are complaining about, it's our position that we need an accurate tool that shows us how students are doing in measuring up to grade level."
But some educators say they aren't sure the tests will do that.
Dan Blanton, principal at Lake Otis Elementary, said more than half his students weren't finished with the reading test after two hours and several needed almost six hours to finish. E-mails from at least a quarter of Anchorage's 60-some elementary principals flew back and forth during test days about problems with the exams, he said.
In one classroom, Blanton said, about a dozen students stopped taking the test when they reached a gray page that had instructions to not write on it. Questions continued on following pages, but the students didn't realize that, he said.
"Had the teacher not caught that, there was 12 of our kids who would have not gotten credit for attempting those questions, and that would have played havoc with our data," Blanton said.
Blanton, formerly a principal in Washington state and in Alaska at Craig and Mat-Su, said in all his years of overseeing tests, "I have never seen the kind of things that have happened here this year, quite frankly."
Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau said she plans to contact state education officials for a meeting about the new exams. At least two Anchorage principals had to drive students home at 5:30 p.m. -- because that's how long it took the kids to finish tests, she said.
"That is outrageous," Comeau said. "Teachers are reporting kids are crying, upset and exhausted."
Glen Nielsen, principal at Denali Elementary, said on the first testing day, about 60 students worked up until the bell rang.
"These kids know it's a big deal and they want to please their teachers and parents and are plugging away working hard, and you just feel bad for them," Nielsen said. "We had a couple kids who ended up getting sick in the middle of the test and throwing up. I don't know if it was sickness or anxiety."
Another issue was the way the tests are put together. Students in grades four and above read multiple-choice questions in one booklet and answer them in another. In the same answer booklet are other questions that require written responses, said Michelle Egan, an Anchorage district spokeswoman.
Rich Kronberg, Anchorage Education Association president, said he heard complaints about the tests at every elementary school he visited this week.
He said the state didn't allow enough time for devising the new exams. The old Benchmark tests, Kronberg said, were developed with caution and ample community input.
"It took years to get it right," Kronberg said. "They were Alaska tests, and they worked."
Morse said the old tests met requirements of the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act but didn't meet the standards of today's federal law. Eighth-grade exams left out half of the math and reading standards, and tests for third-graders left out some 30 percent of standards for math, reading and writing, he said.
"The test is now 35 percent longer," Morse said.
Morse said the state asked the testing company for exams that could be completed in 90 minutes. An average student takes about one minute on a multiple choice question, he said, and a written response -- say, a short paragraph -- shouldn't take more than 10 minutes. The exams Alaska got seemed to fit the time requirements, he said.
Yet "a large number of districts" have reported their students need more time to complete the tests, he said, adding that his agency will look into that.
Morse said most questions on the new tests were reviewed and field-tested and counted toward students' grades. Some, not fully tested, appeared on exams but won't count toward grades, he said. The inclusion of those not-quite-ready questions might account for problems some students had.
The state education department will use this year's results to set passing scores for coming years.
Stayrook, of Fairbanks, said if errors or fatigue from the lengthy exams mean students post lower-than-expected scores this year, the passing scores for future years could be set too low. That means, down the road, data could suggest students are doing better than they are, he said.
Stayrook's bottom line: The state didn't allow enough time to develop a high-quality test.
"So what can I say?" Stayrook said. "I guess we get what we paid for."
Daily News reporter Katie Pesznecker can be reached at email@example.com.
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