Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Standardized Testing

Let me say this straight off: I am not a fan of standardized testing.  I don’t think it measures students’ learning effectively, I think it takes far too much time away from actual teaching, I think results are being used inappropriately, I think too many for-profit organizations are instigating the push for more and more tests so they can make more and more profit, and I think standardized testing has become a faux panacea for all the inequities in education in the U.S.

Right now, teachers across the U.S. are implementing the ACCESS for ELLs tests, which are designed to measure the English proficiency of students who are learning English as an additional language.  There is a battery of speaking, listening, reading and writing tests administered to students that usually takes two or three days and the window for testing all ELLs is about five weeks.  All ELLs in the 36 states that are part of the WIDA consortium are doing the testing now.  Results will be available at the end of May or early June, which enables teachers to make placement decisions for the next school year.

One problem I have with the ACCESS tests is the Speaking section.  Teachers themselves administer this portion, which is not a problem, but then they also score it, which in my opinion is a problem.  Although every teacher who gives the ACCESS must go through an online training to be a qualified test administer and there are clear guidelines for rating a student at particular proficiency levels, the scoring of this test is, inevitably, subjective to some degree because the teacher is evaluating the content of a student’s speech and there is just no way to provide a scoring guide for all the possible permutations of a student’s utterances.

Another problem is scheduling.  Because the ACCESS is only given to ELLs, devising a testing schedule that causes the least disruption to not only their classes but also the rest of the school can be difficult.  Some ELL teachers cancel all their classes during this time but I was never able to do that nor did I want to as I felt that the ELLs could not afford to lose instructional time.  If an ESL teacher only has pull-out classes, it is easier to make a testing schedule but I was teaching mostly content-based classes and my students had nowhere else to go if they didn’t come to my classroom for the period they were supposed to be with me.  Consequently, since I was the person responsible for creating the schedule for when my students would take the tests, I spent a lot of time connecting with all their teachers to make sure that the times I wanted to test them would be as least disruptive to everyone as possible.

It took quite a lot of time and coordination to come up with a schedule everyone could live with.  And then, every year, something would happen that would throw the whole schedule off.  One year, a professional development half day was scheduled for an afternoon during the testing window.  This year, there was a delayed opening because of the extremely cold weather.  But the worst was when, a couple years after I started teaching in a public school and before Massachusetts adopted the WIDA standards and used a different test instead, I was waiting and waiting for my students to arrive and when they didn’t, I went in search of them.  I found them in the gym, waiting to have their photos taken because it was school picture day.  The principal saw me and started yelling at me, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, that he didn’t care about the ESL test, the kids were going to have their pictures taken and that was that.

Well, one of the things I learned from that incident was that I had to take it upon myself to make sure I knew what was going on throughout the school in case it affected the ELLs because no one was going to tell me.  To be fair, part of the reason was that teachers were just too busy but for many of them and for much of the time, English Language Learners were just not on their radar.  But I also think that it’s the job of administrators to oversee all students, including ELLs, regardless of how many or few they may be, and when there is a Federal requirement that must be implemented, they should do everything they can to make it easier for teachers.  Wishful thinking I know, but still, it would be nice.

At least ELL teachers receive test results about their current students.  The MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) tests are administered annually in March for ELA and May for Math and Science to students in Grades 3 – 8 and 10 and results are not available to teachers until the following fall.  Not only does that not give teachers the opportunity to adjust their instruction to better meet the needs of their students, administering the ELA reading and writing tests so early in the year necessitates either going too fast for real learning to occur or skipping important concepts in order to go more in depth with some topics.  Either way, students lose out.  And once the results are in, teachers are told to spend planning time with their grade level team to analyze the results and come up with plans to improve their instruction.  Every year.  The same thing.  (What's that definition of insanity again???)  Since the purported point of the tests is to give teachers data about their students, receiving test results when they no longer have those students is not, in my opinion, the most efficient system.  Maybe things will be different with the PARCC.  But I'm not holding my breath.

Having served on state-wide committees that helped develop the ESL proficiency test that was used prior to the ACCESS, I became very interested in the policies and issues surrounding assessment.  I do agree that there needs to be some measure of accountability and some way of measuring what students have learned in the classroom.  I don’t know what that is but I do know that the current testing regimen isn’t it.