Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Where is the Time for Learning?

Recently a teacher friend and I were asked about how much time is spent on testing in our classrooms. This discussion could have been prompted by an article that appeared in the Washington Post last summer.  While we don’t have the kind of detail discussed in this article, between the two of us, we as teachers are able to provide a K-8 perspective on testing and how it really goes at school. Many of us remember, when we were kids, that once a year we took a fill-in-the-bubbles test that took an hour or two and that was that. My friend and I came to the conclusion that maybe the general public just doesn’t have enough information about what really goes on today. So here goes!

The vast majority of students in Oregon currently take a minimum of two tests each year, in grades 3-8 and again in high school: OAKS Reading and Math. The OAKS manual states that each of these tests take between 60 and 75 minutes to finish. However, some students take up to 3 hours to finish them. These are usually students who really want to do well but struggle with either the content or some form of test taking anxiety. Additionally, there are many other required assessments at various grade levels. You can see the current list here As you can see, these include an English Language Proficiency Assessment (ELPA) which takes about 45-60 minutes and is administered to all students designated English Language Learners beginning at kindergarten. Yes, you read right: a 45 minute computerized assessment for a kindergarten student, complete with sections where they must record oral answers by manipulating a start/stop on the mouse. This includes a large number of children who do not have a computer at home. Next year’s SBAC Reading and Math tests, tied to Common Core standards, are predicted to take students around 3 hours.

You can do the math and extrapolate.

In the past students were given three opportunities to pass these tests, and all three of these “opportunities” were frequently fully utilized as schools attempted to get higher numbers of students to “meet” or “exceed” OAKS requirements. This year, the opportunities were reduced to two, and those are available only to those students who do not meet (unless a parent specifically requests a retest for their child who has already met). The result of this is that those students who are struggling to meet experience the most time out of the classroom learning environment. Schools in high poverty areas, where study after study has shown that children do not do as well on standardized tests as their middle and upper class peers for a variety of reasons, often have large numbers of students who do not “meet” on their first attempt. In a school where many students do not meet on the first attempt, regular instruction cannot continue even for those students who do not have to retake the test, as so many students are out of the classroom for two to three periods of instruction. Some new and different lesson must be planned until all students return; a lesson those who are testing will still miss out on. Next year, we are told there will be one opportunity only. Whether that is an improvement or not depends on your perspective.

There are schools and teachers that attempt to help students pass by providing lots of test prep time. My colleague and I have both been involved in that in the past, but we both agreed that “test prep” really did not do much to help more students who did not meet the first time to meet on the second try. I did recall one year when we flooded a grade level with extra staff, which allowed us to make very small, fluid, flexible groups to meet students’ individual instructional needs. We split three classrooms between six teachers, basically halving the size of the instructional groups. That year was our most successful year at getting significantly more students to pass OAKS. However, that year was followed by multiple rounds of budget cuts that decimated our ability to ever do it again, as our district lost 20% of its staff by the time it was over.

My colleague and I have also both noticed that many kids, by the middle school years, are experts at all the “tricks” they’ve been taught, but are really, really bored with taking tests and if they usually don’t pass, pretty discouraged as well. Some of them will be the first ones done! Click, click, click as fast as you can and finish! Of course there’s no prize for being first, except being done, which is apparently enough of a “prize” that kids who are beaten down by “failing” year after year will step up to claim it. The unfortunate thing is that nearly every student shows growth from year to year, but those who don’t “meet the standard” don’t ever see that, even if you point it out.  It’s still a pass/fail sort of system where students are not rewarded for improving. If they don’t achieve a certain score, they get the message “does not meet the standard”. No wonder they become discouraged.

We both agreed that the kids who like to read and read at home for pleasure do far, far better on the reading assessment. Most kids like that pass! But how to require that “intervention”? We have known many students whose parents are illiterate, some only completing a few years of primary school. Did they, do they, read to their small children at home? Of course not! How could they? And then there are the parents who work multiple jobs, the parents who have severe or chronic health problems, the parents who have mental illness, the parents who are substance abusers. All of these things factor into the literacy and numeracy skills that children arrive at school with. I have had children in kindergarten to whom I have handed a book and they did not know what it was or even how to open it. And when we get those children, in order to make sure they pass the tests upon which our schools’ funding and teachers’ evaluations hang, we must provide required “interventions”. Those interventions frequently consist of “drill and kill” type reading exercises where “fluency” (ability to read aloud quickly) is frequently measured, sometimes as often as weekly. Children may also be asked to answer comprehension questions after reading a passage, which they were timed while reading! This can begin as young as first grade. Nothing fosters love of reading like hurry and stress and tests, right?

And then there are the older struggling readers, who might be motivated to read if they were presented with something of high interest at their reading level. However, the implementation of Common Core standards, wherein all students must tackle “rigorous” grade level passages to develop “grit and tenacity” makes this more and more difficult. I wonder if the people who love to use those terms are aware of how rigorous some kids’ lives are and how much grit and tenacity it requires for them to just show up at school every day?

One last item that may interest the public about these tests: The students are virtually on their own while taking them. Teachers cannot define a word, even a word like “previous” on a math test. Teachers cannot evaluate a question in the middle of a test, nor after a test, nor ever. In the past, if a test had no correct answer or was poorly worded or poorly translated, there was a way for teachers to flag and message the state about this. No more. Now only students can flag such things... beginning at third grade, or in the case of ELPA, beginning at kindergarten. The only thing teachers are allowed to do during the tests is read the verbatim instructions to students: the same verbatim instructions used from grade K through 12. The exact same words, which are far more appropriate for the high school audience than the kinders.

So, who spends the most time taking these tests? The students who struggle the most: Special Education students, who nearly all must take grade level tests regardless of what their instructional level is or has been; English Language Learners, who are required to take the tests after one year in the US regardless of language level; and students who experience test anxiety and  “choke” when they are placed in a high stress testing situation. And let’s not leave out the chronically absent students, who must immediately be snatched from the regular classroom if they DO happen to show up, so that we can meet the requirements for participation. (That does not encourage better attendance in the future, by the way.) And while the other students wait for them to finish testing, regular instruction is paused. Additionally, in most schools, the computer lab (if there is one)  is closed to everything but testing for a period of one to two months. Those one to two months fall sometime between January and March, either one-half or two-thirds of the way through the school year AND one-half to two thirds of the way through the curriculum that is being tested that year.

We should be asking ourselves the following: Is this the most effective use of our students’ time? Is this the most effective use of our tax dollars? And how much is all of this costing, anyway? We should be demanding from our elected representatives an audit of expenses associated with the testing systems to include not only the costs of creation and maintenance of those systems but instructional time spent, teacher prep time and professional development time spent, and physical resources utilized (i.e. computer lab time). At the very least, we need to be able to make an informed cost/benefit analysis of all these things and compare that to the cost/benefit of simply providing struggling students with more instructional time in the classroom as well as in many other programs we have lost due to budget cuts, like summer school and after school programs. Time for the public to learn what’s really going on in the testing business.

If you are interested in particulars of Oregon OAKS testing requirements, here is the OAKS administration manual. It is a public document, available online through ODE.