Will testing be right answer for schools?
As federally mandated exams begin, debate heats up
First of two parts
By Alan J. Borsuk
Fifth-grader Paulina Fortis and her classmates at the Academy of Accelerated Learning spend a half-hour a day doing “Mountain Math,” a review of skills they’ve already been taught, to prepare for upcoming standardized tests. Paulina says she studies at home and she’s going to make sure she’s rested.
In her fifth-grade class at the Academy of Accelerated Learning, a public school on Milwaukee's southwest side, she and the other students have been reading passages and then answering questions in the format used in Wisconsin's standardized tests. They spend a half hour a day doing "Mountain Math," a program aimed at reviewing skills kids have already been taught.
Paulina says she studies at home and she's going to make sure this week that she gets extra sleep and eats well.
Across the state and nation, it's testing time for hundreds of thousands of students in a way never seen before.
Multiply Paulina's nervousness by the number of children in third through eighth grades across the country, add maybe a quarter of all high school students and all the teachers, principals and administrators involved in every public school, and you get an idea of how nervous the world of education is as a wave of testing required by the federal No Child Left Behind law becomes reality.
The American Educational Research Association estimates that 68 million tests a year will be given nationwide to meet the requirements of the law.
In Wisconsin alone, the number of students taking the state tests will rise from about 190,000 last year to almost a half million this year, state Department of Public Instruction officials say.
Even the tests are bigger. Some who have seen Wisconsin's fourth- and eighth-grade test booklets groan when describing them. There will be eight hours of testing for fourth-graders and almost nine for eighth-graders. The state has recommended test schedules that could take up parts of as many as 13 school days for some children, although many schools will take fewer days by doing multiple sections a day.
The official testing window opened Oct. 24 and runs to Thanksgiving. Because many schools don't like to give tests on Mondays or Fridays, the focus will be on the middle of each of those weeks.
A reasonable guess: More students in Wisconsin will be taking standardized tests Tuesday than on any single day in state history.
What will all this prove?
Ask a room full of teachers at a planning meeting at a Milwaukee public school and you get an off-the-record round of groans that appears to represent the views of many educators. Schedules have been reshaped, curriculum changed, special procedures put into effect. The pressure is high.
Leaders of the state Department of Public Instruction aren't very enthusiastic. "It's not like we felt a need for more testing," said assistant superintendent Margaret Planner.
Ask top federal officials, though, and you get a much different answer.
Kerri Briggs, a senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Education, said, "We think it's absolutely going to pay off."
"By asking states to test in more grades, people will be more focused in ensuring that every year, students are making a certain amount of progress, that students are learning things their states have said they want them to learn," Briggs said. She said that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings often says that what gets measured gets done.
Under the federal law, all third- through eighth-graders must be tested each year in reading and math, starting this year. The same is true for one grade in high school - in Wisconsin, it is 10th grade.
In Wisconsin, that means third-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders are beginning to take state tests this year (some districts have given similar tests, but not as part of the state effort). For fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders, the testing will involve five subjects - reading, language arts, math, science and social studies - which have been a part of state tests in those grades for more than a decade.
In addition, many more students are being tested, even in fourth-, eighth- and 10th-grades. Thousands who have special education needs or limited ability in English and who would not have been included years ago are now taking tests, in many cases with special arrangements made to assist them, or with special tests. Schools face consequences if they don't have at least 95% of their students take the tests.
Add it all up, and it is a lot of testing - and money.
Wisconsin paid the private firm that handles the state testing program, CTB/McGraw-Hill, $6.6 million in 2004, and that's only a part of the total testing tab in the state.
'High stakes' tests
"I really don't want to flunk fourth grade," says Sara Bruening, also a student at the Academy of Accelerated Learning. Sara has been studying for the test with her parents, and it's "very important" for her to do well on the tests, she says.
Doing your best is exactly what all schools want their students to do, but in reality, the students probably have less at stake than their schools and school districts. The conscientious Sara is virtually assured of success in fourth grade, but that's not because of how she will do on the state tests. Her performance in class and on the tests her teachers give her will be what matters most.
There can be some consequences to a child in Wisconsin based on test scores, but it's rare. They can be a factor in allowing a child to be promoted from fourth or eighth grade, and in some cases, such as admission to the more rigorous schools in MPS, test scores can be influential. Unlike in some states, passing a standardized "high stakes" test is not required to get a high school diploma in Wisconsin.
If the term "high stakes" can be applied to Wisconsin's tests, it's mostly because of what schools and school districts face if students do poorly.
The No Child Left Behind law sets out escalating consequences based on whether students meet proficiency goals. Factors in the complex law include how student performance compares to prior years. Weak performance by one group of students in a school - a specific minority group or special education students, to pick two examples - can lead to sanctions.
The consequences can turn out to be positive (additional money) in some cases and have not proved too weighty in others. The right to transfer out of schools facing sanctions appears to have had little effect across the United States.
But it is clear that schools do not want to be on a list of those not measuring up - a list of "schools identified for improvement," as they have been called. Rightly or wrongly, such lists are perceived as "failing schools" lists.
"It's a big motivator not to get your name on that list," said state assistant superintendent Planner. Lynette Russell, director of educational accountability for the state, added, "They desperately do not want to be labeled."
Few Wisconsin schools have been labeled so far, but the list is likely to grow. The bar that schools and districts need to clear when it comes to the percentage of students scoring proficient or better rises over the next few years, hitting 100% in 2014, according to current law. Many educators think that is a practical impossibility.
An elaborate process, including sessions with dozens of state teachers, was used to develop questions for the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concept Examinations-Criterion Referenced Test and to decide what scores would earn the four labels applied to the results: advanced, proficient, basic and minimal.
Generally, a school's success is measured by the combined percentage of students who are advanced or proficient.
Tony Evers, deputy state superintendent of schools in Wisconsin, voices the view of many educators when he says that "classroom assessments" - things like the tests your teacher gives you and grades on specific projects - are a better running measure of how a child is doing. He expresses concern that those measures are losing influence.
But many critics agree that if used well, test scores can help a teacher understand the strengths or weaknesses of individual students or help an entire school faculty focus on specific schoolwide needs.
Eileen Depka, who oversees testing in Waukesha public schools, called test results "very valuable to us."
"We consider ourselves a data-based district," she said, so careful examination of results can bring out areas that need more attention, such as essay writing or dealing with certain types of math.
One problem with using test results is the long delay in getting them. It will be several months until individual results are returned to schools and sometime after that before school and district results are available.
Approach varies by school
Schools take many different approaches in preparing for the tests and in giving them.
"We talk a lot about how we make this non-threatening," said Susan Miller, principal of MPS' Academy of Accelerated Learning. "We try not to use the word tests so much."
Rogers Onick, principal of Samuel Morse Middle School, an MPS school primarily for high-performing students, took a different, semi-serious tone as he strolled into classrooms recently. "I know you're going to kick butt on the state tests," he told students in one class. "I know you're not going to disappoint me."
Some schools have students take the tests in groups of fewer than 10, with staff members from throughout the school getting involved, so that the setting is quiet and focused. Sometimes, school bells are turned off and announcements are not made over intercoms during testing period - or students from grades not being tested are dismissed entirely.
Schools often provide snacks and drinks to help keep energy up and encourage parents to make sure their children are well-fed and well-rested.
A criticism is that testing leads to "teaching to the test," a narrowing of curriculum in which important but less measured subjects such as music and art are given short shrift and skills in answering multiple-choice questions are emphasized over deeper thinking.
There appears little question that the tests are shaping some classroom activities. But is it good or bad that eighth-graders in a class at Milwaukee's Sherman Multicultural Arts Elementary School were working on how to write persuasive essays in 30 minutes one morning recently? It is something they will have to do on the tests, but some would argue it's also a legitimate skill.
Experts generally agree that having students study for standardized tests is ineffective. DPI officials say about one hour a year of teaching students what to expect, including how to handle the test format, is about all that is productive.
Renee Bast, a third-grade teacher at the Academy of Accelerated Learning, says, "In the long run, test preparation starts in kindergarten."
Alan J. Borsuk
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES