Del. considers overhaul of student testing
Testing Overhaul means more testing and more multiple choice.
By Cecilia Le
For each of the past 10 years, when trees bud and birds fly north, Delaware children have braced for another perennial cycle: state testing in reading, math and writing. But now, because of a combination of political pressure and increasingly sophisticated testing technology, all that could change.
The tests each March are supposed to judge whether students know what's expected and how well schools are doing in meeting federal accountability requirements. But for as long as the tests have been around, so have complaints that the Delaware State Testing Program provides just an annual snapshot that imparts little wisdom to teachers about where students need help.
Responding to those concerns, a task force examining the future of Delaware's student testing system is considering changes such as:
• Testing at the beginning, middle and end of the year.
• Adding or switching to a type of test that more accurately measures student strengths and weaknesses.
• Moving spring tests from March to the end of the year.
• Requiring end-of-course exams for high school students.
"We now have the capability of doing things differently," said Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff, who heads the task force. "I think it's very smart for us to be thinking now about what the next generation of our assessment would look like."
The group's recommendation is due to lawmakers in late May, but Woodruff said any overhaul of the testing system would take effect no sooner than 2008.
Several members of the task force, including Brandywine school officials and a representative from the state teachers union, last week proposed replacing the current program, which includes multiple-choice and essay portions, with multiple-choice, end-of-year tests for federal-reporting purposes.
They think the multiple-choice tests would save the state money, which could be better spent elsewhere, and give teachers more specific feedback on student progress. They propose continuing to use essay questions, but only for local and state reporting purposes.
"The question is, where can we get the most bang for our buck in improving student learning?" said Nancy Doorey, a Brandywine School Board member on the task force. "This would drive dollars toward improving day-to-day instruction."
But others on the task force, including Woodruff, are skeptical about some aspects of the proposal.
"I think it's a place where we can start," she said. "I don't think it's where we're going to end up."
Woodruff is among those worried that using multiple-choice tests for the federal system of rating schools would water down the curriculum and discourage the critical-thinking skills students need to answer the open-ended essay questions now included in the testing program.
"We need to make sure our assessment system is one that continues to assess the ability of kids to analyze and problem-solve and explain," Woodruff said. "If kids don't think it's important, they're not going to pay attention."
The federal No Child Left Behind law requires schools to test pupils annually in grades three to eight, as well as once in high school. Doorey and others propose using the multiple-choice test to meet that requirement, and augmenting it with other tests to help students and teachers improve. Throughout the year, districts also would use tests designed to measure student growth and help teachers improve.
Five school districts and four charter schools already are trying one such test, Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), made by the nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association. Its supporters say using a multiple-choice test like MAP for federal reporting would cost less, test what students learned during the course of a year, and give more specific information about student skills to teachers and parents.
The tests Delaware uses now are written to determine whether a third-grade student is working at the third-grade level. But for a student who is not working at grade level, the tests do not provide specific information needed to determine exactly how far the student must go or where his or her deficiencies lie.
Doorey said Delaware tests can continue to use open-ended questions for state-level purposes, to be graded by state teachers. Splitting those questions from the multiple-choice test she would like to see used to meet federal standards could save the state money -- she estimated $2 million a year -- that could be used to improve teacher quality.
One area where virtually everyone agrees is that moving testing to year's end would make more sense and eliminate post-testing "dead time," as Woodruff called it, between the March tests and the end of the school year.
"You do have this period where there's almost a sigh of relief in one respect," said Newark High School Principal Emmanuel Caulk, who is not a member of the task force. "We still want to make the end of the year meaningful."
Newark High is piloting the MAP test. Caulk said the test's system of measuring student progress has told teachers whether lessons were effective.
"You can't peel back the onion and see the reason for the improvement," he said of the current tests. "If we improved, was it that the instruction got better or was it just a different group of students?"
One option discussed by the task force is to use one test for federal, high-stakes purposes and an additional test -- like MAP -- to help teachers.
But House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, who has a bill to replace the current testing system, said using both kinds of tests is a bad idea.
"That would be the last thing I want to do," said Smith, R-Clair Manor. "We already devote too many days to test review, test preparation, test-taking. To pile another test on top of it would be asinine and insane."
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