Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Testing Begins... and a call for accountability.

Today was the first day of the state ELA exam for middle school students. The seventh and eighth graders finish tomorrow, while the sixth graders have one additional day on Thursday. One boy threw up in the hallway at 8:15 am. The kids looked grim, but many finished early and said it wasn't that bad.

Anyway, you heard me right, it's January, and we're taking high stakes tests. Some seventh graders will repeat the grade or spend their summer in remedial classes as a result of what they did today. This is because it takes the city/state (it's a state test, but I think that scoring it is the responsibility of the city) over five months to score it, compile results, and notify students who failed about their options for promotion.

Thinking this through... school started in September. That means we have had approximately 4 1/2 months to prepare the children for a test that will have a very real impact on their lives. Apparently, the state considers that enough time to teach the students a year's worth of reading, writing, and listening skills. I realize that I am glossing over the post-test months at the end of the 04-05 school year, but that's because we can all agree that this year's teacher can only be responsible for what happened this year, right? So anyway, 4 1/2 months. But the powers-that-be require 5 1/2 months to get the results ready. Does this seem wrong to you in any way? It seems a little messed up to me that the government/testing companies gets longer to score a test (something which can be done largely by machine once the essays are marked) than the teachers and students get to learn the material, yet it is schools, teachers, and students who bear the brunt of the call for accountability.

I'm all for accountability. I'm not reflexively against standardized testing, in limited quantities and used in conjunction with other measures of progress. But I think it's time that we turned the tables on the test-makers & test-mandators. The movement started with mr. e:
With all that is riding on these tests, you would think that the tests would be well written and accurate, or at least proofread. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. So I'm promoting a new movement for all of those know-it-alls outside of education to jump on -- accountability for test writers.
He continues with a list of concerns about this year's 4th grade test. Building on his ideas, let me propose a few principles of accountability for high-stakes testing:
  • Tests must be error-free. It is completely unacceptable for even one question to contain errors. I'm not talking about subtle issues of phrasing, here, either. I have heard rumors (can anyone confirm?) that on the fourth grade ELA test, in one story, a main character's name changed mid-way through the story! And today, we were instructed to discard the testing instructions for the sixth grade test because they were incorrect and had to be replaced with a new set of instructions. Furthermore, a few minutes after we started today's test, my principal opened her email to find an URGENT email about a problem with the seventh grade test. I don't know what it was, as I was a hall monitor and could not hang around talking, but I watched my AP rush down the hall muttering about how this would never be accepted in a more affluent area... (Unaccountable Talk has the details: The letters assigned to the answer choices did not match up with the letters assigned to the bubbles on the answer document. Don't forget that 7th grade is a new automatic-holdover year, and confusion over five questions could lead to a kid - hundreds of kids! - spending another year in middle school. This is not okay). Every subgroup of testing document must be error-free.
  • Test results must be available to students, parents, teachers, and administrators within two months, maximum. We live in a computer age. If you budget two weeks for marking essays, a week for feeding answer documents into scanners, and a week for analyzing results, I don't see any reason why it should take more than 1 month to turn around these tests. Assuming that there are 1000 reasons why that timeframe is impossible, I think 2 months should be the absolute limit. Test results must be available to all within two months. Period. Not just ELA and Math, either, I include the Science and Social Studies tests in this mandate. No test left behind.
  • No one should score standardized tests unless they are paid extra to do so. Yes, they are paying teachers to score the ELA tests over February break, and that's fine. But as far as I know, we are all scoring Math tests for two days this spring while the kids get a long vacation. That's not what I signed up for when I went into teaching. If I need some extra cash, I'll sign up for scoring sessions, but I'm sure as heck not going to do it for free. High quality tests cost money: to produce, to field test, to print and copy-edit and deliver and administer, to score. It is time that the government faced the real costs of all this testing. If you want to give a test every year to every child, fine, but you're going to have to pay for it. And that includes paying people a reasonable hourly wage to score it. Don't think you can pass that off on your teachers; we have enough to do already, and this wasn't our idea.
  • The testing schedule should be based on the most appropriate timeframe for judging student learning, not on the needs of the companies and governments administering it. No high stakes testing in January, or February, March, or April. Well, okay, late April to early May might be reasonable given an allowance of two months to process the results and notify families about summer school. Again, the government's scoring & reporting problem should not become my students' problem. It is unfair to judge the work of a teacher or school - let alone a student - on 4 1/2 months of work. Tests must be given as late as possible in the school year in order to reflect the knowledge and skills gained that year.
  • Tests must be the highest-quality assessments available, no matter what. That means performance exams for Science. It means carefully field-tested questions in all areas. It means scoring by people with at least a few hours (paid) training. It means checks for scoring consistency from one region of the state to the next (there are rumors that we actually score harder here in the city than they do in the suburbs). It means rigorously checking questions for vague phrasing, class bias, and other forms of unfairness. We are judging human beings with these instruments, sorting people, deciding who stays with their peers and who gets held back, who gets admitted to gifted programs and selective schools and who doesn't, who gets evaluated, remediated, labeled, promoted... how could we use anything less than the most sophisticated instrument available? Oh, right: that costs a lot. Not my problem. If the tests are important, find the money. Only highly-qualified tests need apply.
  • Money for testing shall not be taken out of existing education budgets. This may be the most important item on the list, given that I keep repeating that a good testing program, done right, isn't going to come cheaply. It also must not come at the expense of actual education. Again, if testing is something important to the American public, we ought to find the money to pay for it, above and beyond that which we already allocate to schools.

Taxpayers, how can you expect less?

Problems with tests ought to be highly publicized, like the lists of failing schools. Don't provide any details; just list the name of the testing companies, the names of the responsible departments within the city and state government, and list 'em under the headline: Failing. And then - do schools and teachers and students get to transfer out, to find alternative ways to assess?

Spread the word!


Anonymous Schoolgal said...

Marvelours post.

Of course your comments make too much sense...and in this system, that's unforgivable.

It is also assumed that students retrain what has been taught over the years.

How did you mark the hands-on Science test? Where you given extra preps? Some Science teachers are expected to mark them on their own time because principals have no idea just how time-consuming it is.

6:57 PM  
Anonymous Lady Strathconn said...

I hate testing. I hate giving my kids spelling tests on Friday, I hate testing them on parts of speech and syllable types. I hate testing. However, I know it must be done.

I agree with all your points. How would we score a kid's writing piece if the character, location, or tense changed halfway through? How would we score a procedure that had incorrect directions?

Why should we pay for something the government thinks we should do, out of the budgets (already too small) we have to teach the things they want to test? I know some states and schools have run into trouble the last few years because they didn't budget money to pay for the testing. Why should they? They don't want the tests.

Grrrr...now I am cranky. I hate that people with little to know educational background (other than their own schooling) are telling teachers how best to teach. How best to help children learn. How to best to assess what they have learned. Grrr...

6:58 PM  
Blogger ms. frizzle said...

I used a combination of my own preps and a clerical half-day when my AP split us up and had math & science teachers score the science and english & ss teachers score the ss tests... the science is time-consuming and annoying, but oh my god, the social studies tests are just a nightmare. I tried to help after we finished the science tests and I had to leave, I was having a nervous breakdown just from reading the scoring rubric and trying to learn it and apply it under pressure. geez.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Patti said...

We're scoring our tests at the end of January. Since we're doing it in house, every one affected will know how their kids did by word of mouth, right away. Our analyzed scores will be published by April, and that's when parents will be notified. We are not an affluent school, that's just how we do it here in the sticks. Teachers take turns scoring, I did it last year, someone else does it this year. We don't get paid extra, the district hires subs to cover our classes while we do the scoring.

7:43 PM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Insanity! When our government calls for watchfulness, it's called "accountability," unless we expect the government to be accountable!

8:46 PM  
Blogger Ms. M said...

I signed up to score ELA tests during mid-winter break. I was realling looking forward to making some extra cash but I heard that only 300 teachers signed up and they needed 1000-1500 (I forget the exact number). Instead they are going to pull coaches and others (who they feel have extra time to spare) to grade them during school hours.

I wonder what they are going to do with all that money they are saving?

10:12 PM  
Anonymous Schoolgal said...

Did the DOE cancel February scoring???

12:09 AM  
Blogger Tep said...

I know that in my region teachers will be getting pulled from class to score the tests at the end of January.

It was the 3rd grade test, not the 4th grade test, that had the problem with the name. The story was about a girl named Emily, and the questions asked about a girl named Emma.

To add to your complaint about the length of time it takes to grade the tests (which I had completely forgetten about in my first post), why is it that it takes so long -- sometimes months -- to get the City Princeton Review assessments scored? They are all scantron! What's the point of a monthly assessment if there I can't get the scores until a few months later? I hate having to waste time to give those, especially since it takes so long to get the scores and the questions don't necessarily mesh with the curriculum pacing chart.

Great post!

7:53 AM  
Blogger Amerloc said...

Beautifully done, MsFrizzle.

I long ago adopted the position that the testing is ill-conceived, but the test-to-results lag you describe is unconscionable.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Aunt Murry said...

My hat is off to you! Excellent post!

9:41 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

I've been popping off about the absurdity of testing the first week of May instead of the last... holy crap. Do you test again at the end of the year?

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let the private sector handle the entire testing and scoring chore.

SATs are administered to students across the country on a single day. Results are available in a fraction of the time it takes the agency of the NY government to complete this task.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Emily said...

Ms. Frizz--

I teach 7th and 8th grade ELA, and word on the street was that the tests wouldn't be scored until October. Because these are norm-referenced tests, they have to wait for the results to come in to decide how heavily to count each section.

ALSO, another thing you didn't mention is that CTB/McGraw-Hill has said that these tests will not be "standardized" for another FIVE YEARS, so no school should be making judgements about retaining 6th or 7th graders just on the basis of this ELA test.

3:57 PM  
Blogger yomister said...

I'm really glad that you brought up the issue of having these high stakes tests so early in the year. I found myself in a constant state of anxiety attempting to prep my seventh graders for this "new" state test. With only one sample test published (and modifications to the test made after its publications), I felt ill equipped to prep. Much to my dismay, the areas that I did stress in my test prep (as they were stressed on the sample test) did not even appear.

I won't even begin to discuss my frustration at having to administer this test to special education students who fail to qualify for alternate assessment.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Chaz said...

I believe that high stakes testing should be a major part of the promotion process. However, it is mind boggling that you need to give the test in January and not June.

Regents tests are given in late June and marked in two to three days. Why can't the ELA exam be given in the late spring, after the students had a full year of learning? There seems to be something very wrong here.

Congradulations to those teachers who refused to mark the ELA exam during winter break. Maybe those idiots at the State & Tweed will get the message and start the test later in the year and simplify the test into a Regents type of exam.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Tep said...

I completely forgot about the 5th grade social studies test, which is taken every November.


Given that Social Studies is largely ignored in every elementary classroom because of the pressure of the reading and math exams, I don't know how 5th grade students are expected to pass.

Plus, many middle schools -- including all the ones in my district -- start at 5th grade, so these schools are being judged based on students they only have had for a couple of months.

7:38 PM  
Blogger ms. frizzle said...

In defense of the fifth grade test, I believe it is really a fourth grade test given very, very late. I say that because I think the intermediate level social studies exam is intended to test 5-8, like the ILS exam is intended to test 5-8 science. I'm not sure of that, though. Can anyone clarify?

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Schoolgal said...

While the 5th grade SS test is supposed to measure K-4 knowledge, I find I have to start from scratch and reteach basic map, time line and graphing concepts; review history and government, and teach essay writing all over again,

Most of Sept. and Oct. was spent getting ready for that test, then we went into high gear for the new ELA, and now we are trying to cover most of a year's worth of math in a few weeks. My class swears they never saw a fraction before this year.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Green Froggy said...

Frog2221 said....

I definately agree that testing a child is a good thing, but I think having one test that determines the faight of the rest of their lives is definately not a good idea.

Athough it is a fourth grade test administered in the fifth grade There are many variables that need to be considered. If a child has a learning disability that hasn't been addressed yet, a child who has moved from one another state and how a child learns. Do the tests that are aministered test the students cognitive learning style?

6:03 PM  
Blogger LDK said...

I'm the parent of a 4th grade student. When will we see scores for the ELA, math and science tests?

12:11 PM  

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