Wichita Schools Ready to Lose Tests
Ohanian Comment: One effect of NCLB is that local assessments give way to state-mandated tests.
Wichita officials say it's time to get rid of the benchmarks they created six years ago. Because of a federal law, they anticipate more state tests in the next few years.
The Wichita school district's homegrown standardized tests are about to disappear.
Parents, students and most teachers say they won't miss them.
Administrators and school board members say they hate to lose them and the information they provide, but grudgingly admit it's time to drop them.
Tonight, the board will discuss the district staff's recommendation to eliminate the reading, math and writing tests, called benchmarks. A vote isn't expected until next month.
The district would save about $600,000 a year and clear the way for the coming onslaught of state tests due to arrive in two years.
"The kids take enough tests," said Nancy McCollum, who has kids in first, third, fifth and seventh grades. "If we're going to add more tests, we need to take some away."
Because of the federal No Child Left Behind law, the number of state tests will more than double in two years. Every student in grades three through eight will be tested.
The district will have to replace the specific and timely information about students that benchmark tests provided. Second-, fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders take benchmarks.
Right now those results are used to help determine which students attend summer school and what courses they should take.
"I think the void will be filled by something else," fifth-grade teacher Jeremy Seamster said. "Plus I have my own ways to assess kids."
The benchmark tests have been crucial to the district's improvement since their creation in 1998-99, deputy superintendent Mark Evans said, because they forced everyone to focus on a common goal and measured progress toward the goal.
The benchmarks started measuring whether students mastered the skills they were supposed to. State tests were little help in that regard because the state changed them each year.
Now the state tests are much more reliable. And the district is developing more standardized unit tests and finals to check progress throughout the year.
So no one should worry about not being able to hold the district accountable if the benchmarks disappear, Evans said.
"There's more accountability now than ever," he said.
The state tests have new penalties attached, and schools are held accountable to those results, so Evans said it makes sense to eliminate the district tests and focus on improving state scores.
Most of the cost savings from eliminating the tests will come from not having to pay more than 200 teachers to grade writing tests, Evans said.
Board members Michael Kinard and Sarah Skelton both said they hate to see the benchmarks go, but they don't see any option.
"They're taking so many doggone tests," said Kinard, the board president. "It's ridiculous."
The tests were developed, in part, to answer community concerns about the quality of Wichita graduates.
Suzie Ahlstrand, vice president for education at the Wichita Area Chamber of Commerce, said the benchmark tests served their purpose and have simply outlived their usefulness.
"They were the test of the times and now the times have changed, so they have to change with them," Ahlstrand said.
The way the tests are scheduled now, fifth- and eighth-graders have to take as many as four tests, because both district and state tests fall in those grades.
Eliminating the benchmarks will provide some relief for those grades next year. But when the new state tests arrive in 2005-06, nearly every grade will be tested.
"It's going to be one thing or the other," said Seamster, who teaches at Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School. "You're going to be tested by the district or the state."
Fifth-graders T'Allyn Smith and Monique Ordoyne, who are in Seamster's class, are glad to see the district's tests go.
"It's a good idea," T'Allyn said.
"So we won't have to study so much," Monique said.
But T'Allyn said it is important to have some tests.
"Because we need to know more things," he said.
Seamster said he doesn't think much will change at Minneha.
He will still use the results of state tests to help guide his teaching. And he'll also continue using standardized unit tests to check students' progress throughout the year.
Angie Barnes, who teaches fifth grade at Minneha, said she would like to have the time to teach.
"We'll actually spend a lot more time focusing on what they need to learn instead of testing," Barnes said. "More time is always appreciated."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES