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Districts Feeling Chaotic Impact of New Test Explosion

When the Dayton school board asked principals in a November meeting to share their workplace concerns, the room boiled over with frustration. The No. 1 topic testing.
Boxes had arrived at each of the city's elementary schools filled with something new. The state of Ohio would now require teachers in kindergarten through second grade to give new diagnostic tests.

These tests are long and complex. For the youngest children, teachers needed more than an hour of one-on-one time with each child to administer it.

Kemp Elementary School Principal Burt Thompson, a 37-year educator and principal for 14 years, had seen enough.

"Teachers had a concern they were not going to be able to meet their goals for instructional time," he said. "Some teachers got three binders full of test material."

The federal No Child Left Behind act has sparked an explosion of new tests. The 2002 law requires states to test all students in grades three through eight each year in reading and math and to develop a high school exam by the 2005-06 school year.

With new tests have come problems. Ohio ultimately was forced to back off its plans to test all students in kindergarten through second grade, agreeing in late November to shelve those tests for a year in the face of a near mutiny by teachers and principals across the state who, like those in Dayton, were fed up.

A study for Congress by the General Accounting Office last year estimated states will need to create more than 433 tests to satisfy what the No Child Left Behind law requires.

The new workload on a small industry, in which a mere seven companies account for 85 percent of the market, has some observers wondering if it will buckle under the pressure. At the same time demand for new tests is driving cost estimates for No Child Left Behind act into the billions.

Loading on hundreds of new tests across the country may mean more principals like Dayton's Thompson are left wondering how their teachers are supposed to teach when they are expected to test so often.

At the November meeting, Dayton principals counted more than a half-dozen standardized tests their teachers must give during the school year. These include state proficiency tests, district-sponsored achievement tests, special reading tests, grant-required tests and diagnostic tests to screen for skill weaknesses.

"If the people from the state would realize how much testing we're doing, I wonder if some of it wouldn't be scaled back," Thompson said.

In the case of the reading, math and writing assessments in kindergarten through second grade, those involved with field tests told the Ohio Department of Education that the logistics of so much one-on-one instruction time were too much. Cleveland's teachers' union led a revolt by urging its teachers to refuse to give the test until state officials agreed to drop the requirement this year.

Bob Bowers, deputy superintendent for the Ohio Department of Education, said the problems with the assessment test are not related to the test's design, but to training for teachers, which fell short due to budget cuts. The test is intentionally long, he said.

"What teachers want is a quick test that gives them everything they need to know about a kid, and that's not realistic," he said. "The test needs to be of adequate length. We set out to design a test to help target instruction kids need to be successful. It was purposefully designed that way."

State officials promise the requirement that all students in kindergarten through second grade take the assessment exams will be back in the fall.

A 2003 Boston College study found dozens of testing errors during the past decade, with an increase in the past five years.

Across the country, students have been told they failed tests sometimes even prevented from graduating only to find out later the scores were in error, and in fact they passed. Or large numbers of tests have been discounted or scores changed because of problems with test materials. Consider a few examples:

In Georgia, practice tests questions last year were mistakenly reused on the real test. Officials determined the scores could not be relied on for state ratings and dumped the results.

In New York, 10 school districts sued the state after the passing rate on the 2002 physics exam sank to 67 percent from 88 percent the prior year. The state ordered an investigation, allowed students to retake the test needed to qualify for college and increased teacher training. Three years earlier, 8,000 students had to attend summer school at an estimated cost of more than $3 million when their scores were miscalculated. New York's chancellor had removed five school superintendents whose districts had low scores when in fact the scores had actually risen.

In Minnesota, an attorney found the wrong answer key was used to score his daughter's graduation exam in 2000. The mistake caused failing grades for nearly 8,000 students who should have passed, including 50 seniors prevented from graduating.

Ohio has had similar, but minor problems in comparison.

In 2003, a testing contractor found 47 students' scores were accidentally reported with the wrong student's name on the ninth-grade proficiency test.

William G. Harris, executive director of a non-profit trade group called Association of Test Publishers, said the industry has a good track record when it comes to errors.

"You have to compare it against the fact that there are 54 million public school children in the U.S.," he said. "The numbers are extremely small, but it still causes pain."

When Congress passed the No Child Left Behind act, states and local school districts were left to pick up much of costs.

Those costs are exploding.

Five years ago, Ohio's annual school testing budget was $18 million. This year, it's $75 million.

Nationwide, estimates vary for the cost of complying with the No Child Left Behind act. A much-debated Ohio study put the state's costs at $1.5 billion by 2010, while Ohio is receiving about $44 million in federal aid this year. The $1.5 billion figure includes local school district's costs for extra programs and tutoring to help students pass the tests, which critics say inflated the cost.

Most national estimates have ranged between $2 billion and $5 billion by 2010 for the cost of implementing the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind act. Studies estimating the costs are all over the map because there are many factors that may or may not be considered part of the effect of the No Child Left Behind act.

State legislatures in Utah and Vermont already have begun to wonder whether complying with the No Child Left Behind act is worth the cost. Both have threatened to reject all federal aid for education unless Congress puts more funding behind the 2002 law's requirements.

Even at the local level, costs are hitting home. Dayton school Superintendent Percy Mack said he now has eight administrators working in assessment quadruple from just a two years ago to handle all the tests the district must now administer.

"It's been a big hit for us," he said. "These things cost you and they go up all the time. Its supply and demand. These companies know you've got to have them."

— Mark Fisher
Dayton Daily News


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