Another year, another standardized test, another round of startup difficulties.
Standardized testing has been in full swing in Maine schools over the past four weeks, and teachers are voicing another round of complaints about the state’s new standardized test for math and English in grades three to eight.
For the second spring in a row, Maine public school students are taking a new test for the first time. Last year, it was the Smarter Balanced assessment. This year, it’s a test developed by the New Hampshire testing organization Measured Progress. But the complaints this year sound remarkably similar.
The Maine Education Association, the union that represents most of Maine’s 14,000 teachers, on Monday released a sampling of feedback from its members following the administration of a new, computer-based standardized test. Some complained of computer troubles that complicated test administration and sometimes prevented students from being able to save their work. Others noted that test administration in their schools was all-consuming, that it crowded out non-test activities such as gym classes and occupied all school computers. There were complaints of test questions that were too loquacious. The most common complaint was that testing took too much time that students could have instead spent on more engaging educational activities.
A year ago, it was largely those same complaints that sealed the fate of the Smarter Balanced assessment in Maine. Lawmakers decided to abandon the test just as students across the state were taking it. They made the decision before testing was complete, before results were released and before they could review a more complete, less anecdotal accounting of testing issues.
This year, state policymakers don’t have similar plans to abandon the state’s new standardized test. And early indications are that this year’s test has taken up less time than previous tests and resulted in fewer glitches than the Smarter Balanced test. The Maine Department of Education, as a result, faces the more difficult challenge of determining how the test can be refined so teachers actually find it useful.
Testing is here to stay. The newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, scales back the federal government’s role in education policy, but it maintains annual testing requirements. With testing inevitable, it should be useful to classroom instructors.
One thing teachers need in order for a state-required standardized test to serve a purpose in the classroom is timely results. This year, teachers don’t expect results until the fall — much too late to offer them valuable feedback on their current students’ performance and help them tailor instruction to their students’ needs. The Maine Department of Education should press the test vendor to produce a test that can yield at least a portion of its results in close to real time.
If teachers trust the test, if it actually tests what students should be learning, and if teachers receive timely results, the immediate feedback could help teachers in another way: They might not have to give as many tests overall to track their students’ performance.
While the common complaint about state-required testing is that it takes up too much instructional time, state-required testing isn’t the only form of assessment that uses up classroom time. A 2014 review of 12 urban school districts by researchers with the group TeachPlus found that the districts’ students spent 1.7 percent of their school year on required assessments, but the researchers found that many of the assessments were local, not state, requirements.
If a state-required test could serve a dual purpose, students could take fewer tests overall and teachers could devote less classroom time to assessment and more time to teaching. Maine education officials should work with the test producer on a testing package that can serve this dual purpose.
Maine now has a test presumably for the long run. It should derive as much value from it as possible.