Build a better test.
That’s the goal of a $360 million federal investment in two multistate testing consortiums, Smarter Balanced and PARCC. With so much “teaching to the test” in schools, the thinking goes, if we build a better test — that, unlike traditional fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests, is no longer limited to factual recall and basic reading comprehension — then we’ll improve teaching and learning.
Smarter Balanced, the test used in Maine, is a much better test that is taken on computer technology, requires much more writing, offers opportunities for partial credit for students’ thinking skills even if they make a simple math error, and features tools and supports including calculators, glossaries and text to speech. This test is very different from earlier ones, and I encourage every adult to attempt the high school practice test to understand what is being asked of our students and what it means when, say, only 54 percent of students score “proficient.”
I would wager that much, if not most, of our adult population would not rate proficient on this high school test.
The real challenge now is, how do local schools respond to this new test, and what policies and consequences do legislators, the media, and the public ascribe to the results of these tests?
Maine has historically taken a reasoned, moderate approach to policy decisions around school accountability, and this has served our students and schools well. For example, the Maine Department of Education wisely suspended the A-F grading of schools this year, recognizing the inaccuracy of comparing results on these new tests to the previous NECAPs to determine “growth scores.”
Earlier, Maine policymakers negotiated to develop the 2012 Act to Ensure Effective Teachers and School Leaders, which limits the extent to which standardized tests factor into teacher evaluations in order to permit a robust, multifaceted evaluation process. But this moderate, reasoned policy was called into question by the U.S. Department of Education regarding Maine’s application for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, and there is great risk in undoing it.
That’s because when an assessment is used in inappropriate ways, it distorts the very learning process it is trying to assess. This is clearly already happening around Maine.
Schools are rated for student performance in English (reading and writing) and math, but not for science, social studies, art, music, world languages, health or social skills. Because of the high-stakes, testing-related consequences put into policy, many schools around Maine have essentially eliminated science and social studies from the K-5 curriculum.
As a teacher educator, I am regularly in schools working with new and veteran teachers and have observed this practice in both high-performing, wealthy districts as well as lower-performing, high-poverty districts. This narrowing of the curriculum to focus on what is tested is dangerous to our children’s education.
Currently, schools are in the middle of testing, and most families have received notification of their children’s testing schedule. Some schools are choosing to limit testing’s impact on instructional time and will contain the disruption to one week of intensive testing. Others are attempting to maximize students’ success on the test by spreading out testing times to 30 minutes one day and 90 minutes the next, meaning it will take at least two weeks to deliver the exam.
Many teachers in grades 3-8, as a result, will not have their full class of students for instruction for at least a month because of Smarter Balanced. Then, because of limited access to computers and network server capacity, many schools are administering the test one grade level at a time so it will disrupt scheduled learning time from mid-March through late May.
Then, the Smarter Balanced is currently only configured to be used for accountability measures, not for diagnostic purposes or to inform classroom practice, so students will take other tests like the NWEA to fill that need, which will take additional testing time, disruption to instruction and costs for the schools.
Building a better test has potential benefits for our schools and learning. However, we need to remain vigilant and well informed about how these tests are driving policy, public perception of our schools, instruction, and the daily experience of our children. There is tremendous potential in our public schools. We need to work together to ensure it is maximized.
Flynn Ross is associate professor of teacher education and coordinator of an Extended Teacher Education Program cohort at the University of Southern Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.