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DCSD addresses testing ‘madness’

CASTLE ROCK – Looking at the Douglas County School District’s assessment calendar it is abundantly clear that something needs to change. System Performance Officer Dr. Syna Morgan says students at one level or another are taking tests nearly every day of the school year, most of which are mandated by state law.

A confluence of legislation has created an increase in testing this year. On top of the intensive TCAP schedule and trial testing for the new PARCC tests; school districts across Colorado, including Douglas County, have been forced to add more standardized exams in an effort to meet two new mandates:

•    The Colorado READ Act 
House Bill 12-1238
•    CITE Standard 6 (Integration of student performance into teacher evaluations)
Senate Bill 191, Senate Bill 212 and Senate Bill 163

The unfortunate result of the complex latticework of laws has been over-testing.

“It is madness,” Morgan said.

As she explains, the majority of the tests are now administered using computers, tying up those resources for month. Then, when you add the difficult rules required by the state to ensure the exam security, testing grows, covering the majority of the school year.

With less and less time available due to the growth of the tests, the Colorado Department of Education has been forced to tap high school seniors. Now they’re being tested on whether they’ve met the Colorado Academic Standards social studies and science. Morgan says this shows that testing is out of hand. The seniors’ focus should be on preparing for college or careers, not on a test that will have no impact on their education.

“Your senior year, you should be basically project based and apprenticeships,” Morgan said.  “They should be fitting in their dual credit classes, so they can be a Sophomore when they get to collage, saving themselves and their parents a lot of money.”

It is this lack of relevance to student learning that most concerns DCSD Superintendent Dr. Liz Fagen. She says the tests currently given do not authentically measure the most important outcomes.

“Bad assessments measure things that are low level skills, not higher order thinking skills/information. This sends a signal to our teachers and our students that these low level items are the most important things they need to learn, and they’re not,” Fagen wrote.

The result of the testing becomes a focus on mediocrity, rather than increasing student performance. 

The Superintendent says she and teachers believe in accountability, when it provides data that not only shows students are learning, but can provide them feedback on ways to improve their teaching. That is why DCSD believes authentic assessment that is an integral part of the instructional process is beneficial. 

“Our great teachers care very deeply about the progress of our students,” Fagen said. “However, great teachers, leaders and I agree that accountability gone wrong is bad for our students. In fact, I would argue that bad accountability is worse than no accountability.”

Good assessment, Morgan says, is a bit like driving school. The only standardized test is given at the very beginning, to determine a baseline regarding a student’s understanding of basic road safety. After that, all testing is authentic.

“Everyday that I drive is my formative [assessment],” explains Morgan from the perspective of the student-driver. “Then my family might take me out on interim [assessments], which would be when I go on the freeway, when I go in different conditions.” 

Finally, at the end of the class, the student is expected to prove that they are a safe driver in a final practical exam, before finally getting their license.

Morgan says school should be similar. If a student is learning science, instead of an end-of-the-year exam, they should be expected to prove their knowledge in science by using it in a project. For instance, in a chemistry class students could apply their learning by testing floodwaters to determine what is safe to drink, analyzing poached meat to identify poachers or to determine the cause of a forest fire.

“I’ve learned this stuff, I can deepen my learning by applying it and analyzing it. I will internalize it when I can create new knowledge from the science I’ve learned. I now take the science I learned and am not only using it and doing it,  I’m now creating new knowledge because I’m transferring it over to poached meat or forest fires,” Morgan explained.

The District is now working to educate parents about the difference between high quality and relevant assessment like this and the standardized testing that is consuming so much time and resource. DCSD hopes they will contact their legislators and demand changes to law, which provide flexibility for districts while still ensuring accountability.

November 2, 2013 | By rmbarber | Category: Assessment and System Performance

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