Nan Austin

Tests, report card you might want to hide from the parents

It feels like a Friday in grade school, with tests on everyone’s mind.

A report due kept us up poring over a Social Studies book last night. We just finished a pop quiz in English. A chapter test is coming in math, but right now the teacher is handing out that wide-lined, spelling test paper …

It seems like we tested a ton back then, so when people complain there is too much testing now, I wonder what they base that on.

Well, now we have the numbers. The Council of the Great City Schools has released a report on how much testing is being done – about 35 minutes a week on average. The U.S. Department of Education released its Testing Action Plan, laying out best test practices, pledging to help make them happen and suggesting time spent testing be limited.

On Wednesday, the national scorecard for fourth and eighth grades posts its biennial results. An early view shows there was a tiny drop, but basically the U.S. scores are flat again on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as NAEP (pronounced nape). State test results, you’ll recall, came out with a collective thud in August.

The American Institutes for Research just published a report on the alignment of NAEP and the Common Core standards – they line up only so well, but better than the old system.

The test topic is testing reporters as well this year, but at least this batch of news has some thinking behind it, and it seemed like a good time to go digging into the nagging worries about testing.

1. Are our kids being overtested?

The Great City Schools report, which centers on 66 urban school districts, found the average student took eight standardized tests last year: two state tests – reading and math – and three pairs of standardized practice tests.

During the 2014-15 school year, students in all grades across the 66 districts sat for 6,570 tests (including districtwide tests and teacher quizzes).

If you talk to pro-test folks they will say the number is eight; anti-test folks will point to the 6,570. Both tell only part of the story. More useful is how much time kids spent being tested, which the study found was 2.34 percent of the time for the highest test-taking year, eighth grade.

The USDE Testing Action Plan suggests a limit of 2 percent, which amounts to half an hour per week in California’s 54,000-minute school year.

2. How are our kids doing, really?

Not well on average, but most were not doing well under the old system either.

While the No Child Left Behind mandate was for every child to be meeting standards by now, in reality only 39 percent of Stanislaus County third-graders were at grade level in reading and less than half of sixth-graders were ready to move on in math by the 2013 test results, the last under the old standards.

I did a completely unscientific comparison this week, looking at percentages meeting the old standards on the old test in 2013, and then at percentages of kids who met or exceeded the new standards on the computerized test tied to Common Core.

I used two schools who year after year tested at the top of the scale and two that year after year tested at the bottom, to get a ballpark sense if the same lead-balloon drop happened equally across very different demographic groups.

The reliably top scorers, those high-profile schools where upward of 80, even 90, percent passed the bar on every test before, got a shock. Only around 55 percent of students passed in math. Around 70 percent did well in English on the computerized test.

For the two schools at the bottom of the learning curve, where students are all poor and mostly English learners, where around a third scored well in math in 2013, the numbers fell to heartbreaking this year.

In one, 3 percent of all tested students met the math standard, with more than 70 percent testing at the very lowest rung. The other had 10 percent meeting math standards this year. In English the drop was less dramatic, from some 27 percent meeting the standards in 2013 to about 17 percent in 2015.

The change from multiple choice bubbles to typing essays did not go smoothly, but the real test will be where the scores go from here.

3. How are California’s kids doing overall?

On the Nation’s Report Card being released Wednesday, California sits near the bottom. In 1998, it was 10-12 points below the nation’s average and that has not changed. The achievement gaps for poor kids, African American and Latino students, 30-plus points for each group, also have not budged.

Fresno results, the closest district to Modesto singled out for individual scoring, were significantly below California as a whole. Our Central Valley neighbor to the south ranked about even with Baltimore and Philadelphia, and better than only Detroit out of 20 urban districts listed.

Early Common Core adopter states like Delaware and New York did far better than California, but dropped against their previous scores this year. More states scored lower, but overall the national results dropped by very little. Once again Massachusetts came out on top.

4. Why all this focus on tests?

The federal Testing Action Plan takes this on, basically framing testing as the most honest way to know what kids are understanding, and where they still need help. The plan is more a testing wish list, that they be fair, fully transparent, high quality and just one of many measures.

Standardized tests are the hot-button item. Teachers can assign pop quizzes, chapter tests and written reports every day without question – that assessment we trust is necessary.

But research shows that marginalized groups prefer standardized testing. They trust the results more. Anonymity can be viewed as the best way to get past biases.

Whether the focus is on equity or improvement, tests provide the measuring stick.

5. What do other countries do differently?

From books by educators writing about this very topic, countries all approach schooling from their own cultural and political mix. Much that works elsewhere might not work in a country as large and economically diverse as America.

But to start the conversation, here are a few utterly foreign ideas:

  • Teachers paid on a single, national pay scale, able to move districts without loss of pay or pension, and districts do not compete on salary
  • Early, intensive supports for all students starting behind or who might have learning differences
  • Longer school days and school years
  • No separate system for students with disabilities, but lots of supports for students as needed
  • Highly competitive teacher colleges, where teachers in training earn an advanced degree in a content subject and do extensive shadowing before teaching independently
  • Stronger social services for young families and efficient public transportation systems

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin