Testing Madness: A story of unintended consequences
CASTLE ROCK – At schools across Douglas County School District, learning has been paused for the past couple weeks as students take the state science and social studies tests, known as the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS).
This and other state standardized tests have become so common that they regularly disrupt the learning that they’re meant to ensure.
For the state social studies test, 4th graders, 7th graders and 12th graders (this fall) spend, on average, three hours testing. Similarly for the state science test, 5th graders, 8th graders and 12th graders (this fall) spend an average of three hours testing.
Just last month, 3rd grade through 10th grade took the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP) tests. On average, students at all levels spent six hours on TCAP reading and writing tests, and more than three hours on TCAP math tests. In addition to this direct interruption, learning is often hampered for weeks because resources within the school are tied up, as tests are administered to other students.
“Even if a student isn’t being tested, the school is in testing mode. Their technology is being used for testing, so it is not available for instructional use,” explained Chief System Performance and Assessment Officer Dr. Syna Morgan.
When you look at the District’s testing calendar, the problem is easy to see. Most DCSD schools are tied up for months with state assessments. The worst impact is in March and April.
The following is a list of the major state standardized tests and the grades impacted:
TCAP Reading, Writing and Math
Grades 3rd through 10th
CMAS Social Studies
Grades 4th , 7th and 12th
5th, 8th and 12th
Kindergarten through 3rd Grade (three times per year)
Where did we go wrong?
Morgan says it is the unintended consequences, created by more than a decade of legislation focused on student and teacher accountability through standardized testing, that has brought us to this place, which she refers to as “testing madness.”
“When the Colorado Standards were initially adopted and the state assessment was initially implemented, the intention was good,” Morgan said.
She says the concept was like an annual physical for schools. School districts could get a snapshot of how students were doing and where to target program improvement.
“You go in for your annual physical. Are you healthy? It is a check up,” Morgan said. “If you are showing signs of concerns, then there is additional investigation by relevant assessments in the local system.”
That all changed in 2001, with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
In an effort to ensure that every child received at least a basic level of education, a new way of viewing accountability through “adequate yearly progress” was created.
“It was a high jump mentality. Here is the bar and you have to get over the bar,” explained Morgan. “School districts became very focused on granular skills, which were estimated as the skills students needed to get to the bar or stay at the bar. It became an effort of skills roulette.”
Instead of stretching all learners, the primary focus was placed on helping struggling learners reach the bar. The state’s original test, the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP), became the sole indicator of whether this mandate had been met.
Even today, TCAP and the other state assessments are not meant to support teachers in making direct instructional decisions.
“The technical guides explain that they are not intended to be used for direct instructional decision-making but rather for program improvement decisions,” Morgan said. “They are not specific enough to the actual instruction happening in the classroom and they are not expansive enough to measure every concept and skill that a student would need to be successful.”
Even so, these assessments are the primary focus of many. The tests and the subjects and topics covered is where schools focus because the stakes are extremely high. Schools are judged by these tests within the educational system as well as by general public.
Overvaluing A Single Test
By placing high value on a test that doesn’t serve a purpose within our classrooms, the educational system has devalued the assessment practices that actually serve students and that teachers and schools value the most.
As Morgan explains, “The argument is, ‘well you can still do those other assessments.’ And, we do. But at what expense?”
Many schools do continue to offer International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and a variety of other interim and summative assessment practices that directly tie to their programming and lessons. The problem is that they have to do it on top of an already crushing load of testing.
Accountability, Without Assessment Overkill
While Douglas County School District is advocating a new path with less burdensome state testing demands, it is in no way trying to shirk the accountability that our lawmakers and community expect.
“I argue for rigor. We have an expectation of high rigor and must have a support system to help all students get to the performance expectation,” Morgan explained. “Our interest in accountability and the ability to compare and hold ourselves up to a standard is not lessened. We actually want more direct evidence of students performing at high levels.”
DCSD believes that there are better and more balanced ways to demonstrate that our students have met state standards, but also provide us relevant information about our students’ progress and needs.
“If we demonstrate that we are meeting or exceeding the state expectation, that obligation should be met. We should not have to meet it at every grade, every year, in every core content area. That is overkill,” Morgan said.
Morgan says the current system is out of balance. The benefits do not outweigh the demands of the current state testing requirements.
So the question becomes, “If not this, then what?”
Next week, in the second part of this multi-week series, we will explore how a balanced assessment system can benefit our students.