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NCLB Outrages

Are we testing kids too much?

Ohanian Comment: It is
sad to see educators making such claims for
standardized testing. Actually, I was saddened
the first time I read this. Then I read it
again, and I was angry. Lots of weasel-speak

by Julie Mack

PORTAGE -- Ten-year-old Cole Curtiss is no
stranger to assessment tests.

As a third-grader last year at Portage's
Amberly Elementary School, here's what Cole

⢠The Michigan Educational Assessment Program
tests, which involves more than eight hours of
testing during two weeks in October.

⢠The Standardized Test for Assessment of
Reading, a computer exam given four times
annually to determine his grade-equivalent
reading level.

⢠The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early
Literacy Skills test, administered three times
during the school year to check reading

⢠The Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, which is
essentially an IQ-type exam.

This year, Cole won't take the Otis-Lennon
test, but otherwise he is taking the fourth-
grade versions of all the other exams.

"It's a lot," said Cole's mother, Shari
Curtiss, who has mixed feelings about
assessment testing.

While "it's reassuring" to see hard data on her
children's academic abilities, Curtiss said,
"It seems that schools live or die by the

Portage Public Schools is not unique in its
increased reliance on assessment tests, a trend
that some find unsettling but others see as one
of the most positive recent developments in
education through high school.

Advocates say assessment tests help school
districts measure the quality of their
curricula and instruction. They also help
pinpoint children's strengths and weaknesses
and have encouraged schools to develop broader
supports and strategies to deal with
educational issues.

"The increase in assessments and the increase
in attention put on assessments is causing
schools and teachers to change their focus from
teaching to whether students are learning,"
said Denise Bresson, curriculum director for
Portage Public Schools.

"It's a shift in the paradigm from saying, 'I
taught it,' to asking ourselves, 'Did they
learn it?'

"And once we've assessed each student, it means
instructors have an ethical reason to intervene
if we find the student isn't learning as they

Michael Rice, superintendent of Kalamazoo
Public Schools, said assessment tests are about
accountability and making sure every student
gets the same quality of education.

"It's about teaching to a standard," he said.
"And if you're not teaching to a standard, then
what are you doing? You're just freelancing."

Still, for some, subjecting students to so many
tests sums up what's wrong with American

"It's too much," said Larry Schlack, former
superintendent of the Berrien County
Intermediate School District and now an
educational consultant.

"Are we testing kids in art? In athletics? In
social skills? There are other things that lead
to success in life, and we're not testing them
at all," Schlack said.

"We're testing only the academic skills, and
it's not a complete spectrum of what makes kids

A new kind of test

Testing advocates say testing is nothing new --
teachers always have given tests and quizzes to
check students' knowledge.

The difference now, they say, is using tests
that haven't been generated by the classroom
teacher. That can make teachers feel defensive
because the outside tests are also assessing
their performance.

"Nobody likes the idea of teaching to a test or
feeling judged about the results of those
tests," Amberly Principal Mary Daoust said.

The big impetus behind increased testing has
been No Child Left Behind. The 2001 federal law
mandates states test students every year in
grades three through eight, as well as during a
year in high school -- and sanctions schools
with low scores. In Michigan, that federal
requirement is fulfilled by the MEAP.

"No Child Left Behind has forced us to take a
hard look at each and every child," Bresson

Pressure to perform well on the MEAP has driven
the use of other assessment tests, educators

For example, MEAP testing doesn't start until
third grade; if children are to succeed on the
MEAPs, then their academic weaknesses need to
be identified and addressed before that.

Bob Van Dis, curriculum director for Plainwell
Public Schools, said the MEAP also has another

It basically tests whether students are
learning the state's grade-level benchmarks,
which help assess a district's curriculum as a
whole, Van Dis said. But, he said, it is much
less helpful in assessing individual students,
especially very low or high achievers.

"I wouldn't dare make a decision for an
individual kid based solely on the MEAP," Van
Dis said.

Another problem with the MEAP, educators say,
is the significant lag time in getting the

"We test in October and get the results in the
middle of the second semester," Rice said.
"It's almost dead results -- you can't drive
instruction and interventions with an
individual child with that kind of turnaround."

Boost from technology

Another factor driving increased use of
assessment tests is recent improvements in

Technical improvements allowed test companies
and school districts to quickly produce lots of
in-depth data that wasn't available before or
could only be culled through labor-intensive
efforts. That makes the tests useful in a way
they weren't a decade or so ago.

"I can look at how the fourth-graders did this
year compared to how that group did as third-
graders," Daoust said. "I can look at how the
subgroups did -- how the boys did, minorities,
at kids who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch.
Looking at those kinds of numbers can be a real

Technology also plays a role in the testing
itself. Many districts -- including Kalamazoo,
Portage and Plainwell -- have elementary
students take a computer exam that
automatically adapts to each child, making the
questions easier if students can't handle the
initial questions or making the exam harder for
high achievers.

Van Dis says that's particularly useful in
measuring the skill levels of those who are
performing way above or below grade level.

Well-rounded view

Rice said multiple assessment tests are needed
because each serves a different purpose.

The widely used DIBELS reading test, for
instance, takes only about 60 seconds to
administer and the results are immediate,
making it "hugely helpful" in checking a
child's progress, Rice said.

In addition, KPS administers the Iowa Tests of
Basic Skills, a paper-and-pencil test that
shows how its students compare to students from
across the nation.

"No test is perfect. No test gets it all," Rice
said. "But together, there's a real power to

Rice said assessment testing is critical to
making all KPS students college-ready, so they
can take advantage of The Kalamazoo Promise
scholarship program.

"We want our children to know what their
reading level is," Rice said. "It permits a
conversation and a consciousness raising for
children," particularly if educators make it
clear that a student needs to be at or above
grade level to succeed in college.

Testing too narrow?

As the pendulum swings toward greater use of
assessment tests, Schlack is among those
fighting the trend.

A regular speaker at education conferences
around the country, he gives talks with titles
such as "Math Daffy," ridiculing the need to
test kindergartners in math.

One of his major concerns is that increased
emphasis on testing in early elementary years
stigmatizes late bloomers -- and
disproportionately affects boys, who tend to
lag developmentally behind girls. He said it's
absurd to expect every child will progress at
the same rate.

Schlack said assessment tests also look at only
one aspect of children: their academic

"We're focusing on academic skills, and some
people say that's what school is about,"
Schlack said. "But I think it's about finding
strengths in kids. Some kids are academically
strong, and some have strengths in other areas.
Schools should be a talent search."

But other educators say the reality is that
children need a certain level of reading and
math skills to function in the work force and
that letting them leave school without those
skills is doing them a disservice.

Testing "keeps us accountable," Daoust said.
"It forces us to ask ourselves, Where do we
want these kids to be?

"I think teachers appreciate that we're
identifying these kids (with academic problems)
and we're doing something about it."

What: The Michigan Educational Assessment
Purpose: The MEAP tests students on grade-level
benchmarks -- essentially, the state curriculum
-- in each subject. It fulfills the federal
mandate for states to test every public school
student in grades three through eight in
reading, writing, math, science and social
Advantages: It's the best measure of whether
students and schools are meeting state
Disadvantages: The MEAP is a time-consuming,
high-stakes test, and there is considerable
controversy about using such tests to judge
schools. The MEAP also is limited in diagnosing
individual children's weaknesses because
students wait until third grade to take it and
there is considerable lag time between taking
the test and getting results. Also, it is not a
good test for assessing special-needs children,
such as children who have disabilities or are
not fluent in English.
What: Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early
Literacy Skills.
Purpose: A popular and quick one-on-one test
given to early-elementary students to check how
fast and accurately they can read. Many
districts give DIBELS periodically to all
students but test struggling students more
often to determine if intervention efforts are
Advantages: Fast, inexpensive; results are
available immediately.
Disadvantages: Because it's a short test, data
is limited. Also, its value decreases as
students grow older and reading comprehension
becomes more important.
⢠Computer-adaptive tests
What: Includes Ed Performance, used in
Kalamazoo Public Schools, and STAR, used in
Portage Public Schools.
Purpose: Assessing reading skills and
generating a report that gives grade-level
equivalency -- saying, for instance, a child is
performing at the level of the average third-
grader in his or her second month.
Advantages: The tests automatically adapt to
each child, making questions easier if a child
can't answer the initial round or harder if a
child does well, making these tests
particularly effective for low- and high-
achievers. Also, the tests provide quick,
accurate data on student growth.
Disadvantages: Determining grade-level
equivalencies is a tricky and controversial
process. Who determines what the average third-
grader in their second month should know?
⢠Norm-referenced tests
What: Includes the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills,
Metropolitan Achievement Test and California
Achievement Test.
Purpose: A pencil-and-paper test created by a
national company that allows schools to compare
their students to others across the country.
Advantages: Useful as a supplement to the
MEAPs, measuring student abilities and growth
in a different way and against a national
Disadvantages: Unlike the MEAP, which is scored
on whether students know the material or not,
norm-referenced tests are scored on a curve,
ranking test-takers compared to their peers. By
definition, half of the students will test
below average.
⢠Ability tests
What: Tests such as the Otis-Lennon School
Ability Test, used in both Kalamazoo and
Portage schools.
Purpose: A pencil-and-paper test that assesses
abstract thinking and reasoning ability.
Advantages: The Otis-Lennon test is easier and
less expensive than the standard IQ test but
generally serves the same purpose. It helps
identify students who need special-education
services or classes for gifted children.
Disadvantages: Assessing IQ is controversial,
because many people have skills and abilities
that elude IQ tests.

SOURCE: Test Web sites

— Julie Mack
Kalamazoo Gazette


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