Nan Austin

On Campus: Seminar sparks interesting ideas on schools’ state testing

Mark Twain Junior High student Jaqueline Leon shows water they will be testing to fifth-graders Darius Murphy and Ariana Avila at Franklin Elementary in west Modesto on Friday.
Mark Twain Junior High student Jaqueline Leon shows water they will be testing to fifth-graders Darius Murphy and Ariana Avila at Franklin Elementary in west Modesto on Friday.

I spent two days this week at Stanford University at an Education Writers Association seminar on state testing that third-graders through high school students will take in the spring.

I came to learn about the tests. But just as valuable are the fresh ideas sprouting from the tangents, and those along-the-way talks with colleagues. Even just the change of pace – a day without deadlines – lends itself to looking at the bigger picture.

I came away with notebooks scribbled through with story ideas for down the road. For now, here’s a Top 5 list of interesting notions gleaned from national experts.

1. What brain research shows works, and why aren’t we all doing it?

New York Times health writer Benedict Carey studied what cognitive psychologists have figured out for his book “How We Learn.” Some tips are no surprise, such as learning things over time works better than cramming for a test the night before.

Less clear is why mixing up math tasks teaches more than practicing one type of problem over and over. Using four types of math problems, homework assigned different types in a block of similar problems – think of the old chapter test – or a mixed group with different types of problems. The math mix won hands down, 72percent right on the follow-up test vs. 38percent on skills learned by repetitive practice.

2. Testing can also be teaching.

I was skeptical, but after some explanation, this comes in high on my list. Imagine being given the biology final exam the first day of class as a pretest. Now think of how different the note taking, studying and reports would be, knowing exactly what the instructor wanted. This flips traditional class style on its head, but Carey has the numbers to back it up, and using a test to help kids focus gets past a lot of figuring-out-the-teacher high school headaches.

3. Nobody else tests every kid every year.

Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond commented that all those countries outscoring us on the international tests give one or two tests to children before high school – that’s it. Those are in-depth tests that take time and hand scoring, but that higher cost is far offset by so many fewer tests taken.

“There’s a fundamental mind-set that has to change, said speaker Anya Kamenetz, a National Public Radio education reporter. She argued the new tests are not substantive change, just better questions. Kamenetz called for multiple, more creative ways to measure mastery, such as oral arguments.

4. Tying teacher evaluations to test scores.

Several states base up to 50percent of a teacher’s evaluation on state test scores. New York ties evaluations to a test it designed itself and that teachers do not trust, said New York City teacher Maura Henry. “When we saw the sample items, that’s when the revolt began,” Henry said during a panel that addressed testing pitfalls.

She said Common Core was not what inflamed passions in New York, which has used the standards for several years. “It felt pretty similar and it was, for the most part, a welcome change,” said Henry, who teaches in a “textbook-free” school. Teachers design their own lessons and find their own materials, which Henry said she prefers. “As a beginning teacher, I loved being handed it. ‘This is what you teach.’ But after teaching for a few years now, I think I would push back,” she said.

Darling-Hammond is no fan of tying teacher evaluations to standardized tests, calling them unreliable and the least defensible measure around. She advocates a portfolio approach for teachers to show student growth.

California refusing to give tests that counted last spring was a mutiny of sorts. The state is unable to get a waiver from onerous No Child Left Behind penalties because it refuses to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, said David Plank of Policy Analysis for California Education.

5. The old tests were way easier.

Andrew Latham of WestEd brought sample test questions from the old and new tests, laying questions covering similar skills side by side. Wow. An old sixth-grade writing test prompt asks students to opine about a keeping a discount movie theater open. The Common Core test asks students to read two articles, watch a video and have a class discussion before writing an opinion piece citing evidence for their positions.

“It’s clear the new questions are on track to be much more challenging,” he said.

Reporting on them will be challenging as well. The big-picture lesson from all of it was that parents and community members need information that sorts out the wonky and the wacky and makes the numbers add up.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209)578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.