Nan Austin

Testing needs to leave the dark side, be a force for good

Testing season is just around the corner, beginning later this month for elementary schools. Those who study testing expect scores to rise this year as kids and teachers find their groove. But taking the long view, this whole process could work a whole lot better.

In California, grades three through eight have a 12-week window starting two-thirds of the way through the school year. That long window allows schools without much bandwidth or enough computers to cycle all the classes through the computer lab, where the tests are taken. It takes multiple sittings to complete the tests, which range by grade from about seven to nine hours. High school juniors will take English and math tests in April and May.

Teachers already are planning for the 30-minute pretest activity for their class, meant to be done a day or so ahead to give students some background before the performance task portion. Sample math performance tasks available online look like extended word problems – for a 12- by 8- by 2-inches box, sixth-graders calculate the surface area and volume, and label the lengths on a drawing of an unfolded box.

“They’re meant to level the playing field,” said Danielle Hinkle, head of testing for Modesto City Schools. “For this year, the state has decided the classroom activity is optional. We are still choosing to provide the classroom activity. We want to give our kids every opportunity,” she said.

Higher scores are expected this year. Statistically, just getting past the whiz-bang newness of computer testing should help. Kids also have a second year under their belts of the hands-on, think-it-through regimen of Common Core that got a rocky start in many classrooms last year.

There is reason for hope on that score. A report by the Center for American Progress shows states that buckled down to higher standards early showed strong improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more commonly known as NAEP (pronounced nape).

Through the No Child Left Behind years, when states could plump up their scores by picking lesser standards to test and lower scores to pass, the NAEP was considered the only reliable gauge of how much students were learning. That test is given to just some grades every four years. Even though the numbers passing state bubble tests rose (cue cheers and fanfare), how well kids actually could read or calculate barely budged.

But the study found states that went to higher standards bucked the trend, with Massachusetts at the head of the curve on pushing tougher standards and higher expectations. It also has had near universal health care since 2006, meaning its schools did not have to track down pro bono dentist time, arrange clinic appointments and provide vaccinations for kids in low-income families. Massachusetts’ poor children now rank among the most successful in the nation, notes “A Look at the Education Crisis.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education offered new guidance on testing in the transition period between the end of President George W. Bush’s signature education law (NCLB) and the update finally passed, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Most provisions of ESSA take effect in the 2017-18 school year, giving schools another year and a half to limp along under the defunct system of mandates and sanctions.

“High-quality assessments give parents, educators and students useful information about whether students are developing the critical thinking and problem-solving skills they need to succeed in life,” said acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. in the announcement. “But there has to be a balance, and despite good intentions, there are too many places around the country where the balance still isn’t quite right. We hope this guidance will help restore that balance and give back some of the critical learning time that students need to be successful.”

While state testing is long and laborious, it is just one of many tests kids take every year. English learners take tests to see if they have mastered the language. Struggling students are tested to see where they need extra help. Bored students may be tested to see if they are gifted. Advanced Placement courses have AP tests on top of finals.

Tests to get ready for testing also add to the total. Districts pick their own way to check progress and help kids over the rough patches the tests point out. A growing industry devotes itself to helping them do that.

Test. Test. Test. We all think of the torture of final exams and cringe at the word. But tests are not inherently evil or even necessarily miserable.

Another Center for American Progress report presses for testing reform as part of the ESSA rollout. “Implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act” advises the state to insist on more timely results. Testing in the spring and sharing the results in the fall makes no practical sense. The kids are not even in the same grade when they get their results.

It advises school districts to avoid overlapping tests and make sure teachers know how to make the best use of results from all of the tests their classes take.

And finally it gives some great tips for taking the misery out of testing, including permitting bathroom breaks and taking breaks between testing sections. It suggests holding events such as annual explain-the-test nights for parents.

If I had a magic wand, I would fast-forward adaptive testing. There will come a day when assessing what kids know will gain the insight to capture what kids who learn differently are getting or missing, and teachers will have a real-time window into what works. That is when every child’s education can be special, and inclusion will be the first choice instead of the exception.

Ideally, tests would be a constant stream of checks that fit in with the lesson and let teachers see what took and what missed without breaking stride. The future of testing may well look less like a blue book and more like a video game.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin