Sunday, March 15, 2015

After The Testing is Done, What Then?

If you've followed any of the stories about standardized testing in recent years you've no doubt read about all the time taken up either preparing for tests or taking the actual tests.  It is true that there's a lot of time in both of these areas.  At my own school we've just begun the new computer based online tests (early March as I write this) and they're scheduled through mid-May.  Yes, that's right three months.  By any standards that's quite a lot of time in the school days taken up with students navigating or trying to (as there are often technical glitches) online tests.  We could talk about what else students might be doing during this time or how the intense focus on tests shapes curriculum but I'd like to look at some of the things I'm noticing as a school teacher that I'll put in the "Brave New World" folder.  One example is the issue of technical glitches in the testing environment. There has always been a huge focus on the testing environment.  Cell phones are not allowed in the classroom, computers often can't be turned on, students are not allowed to come and go at will, and these are just a few of the rules put in place to make sure the testing environment hasn't been compromised.  Now that the tests are online I see students who will be "dropped", the wireless goes down in the building, there's an issue at the server or any number of other issues comes along and they're stranded while a teacher helps them get back online.  Some students may wait twenty minutes before being able to log back on to the test, perhaps the work they had been in the middle of may be there, or maybe not.  Now suppose you take two students in a class who are taking the same test, one has to log on more than once as one of the technical glitches kicks them out of the test, the other has no issues.  Can we call their testing experience equal?  The whole point of the standardized test is that all students are tested equally.  Has the testing environment be compromised in anyway?  So far I haven't heard anyone addressing that issue.  It may well be that the online testing format is the best option we have considering the speed at which the information can be processed and results returned to the schools, but its clearly far from perfect, maybe even far from good.  I'm not against online testing but think for a moment of the last time you opened a text book, had the words suddenly disappeared? Did a teacher tell you to close the book and open it again to see if they had come back? Even the tech savvy computer experts have issues from time to time, and when you have hundreds of students logging on to a test site you can bet that the problems will be more often than not.  I haven't heard any discussion on this point and it seems like just one of those things we are to accept as the new norm.  The disconnect for me comes from operating with what might be an old set of expectations in a new norm.  If having the student log into the test possibly several times is okay, then the definition of the testing environment has changed and we should acknowledge that change.
One of the promises of the new tests is the rich data that can be mined from the results.  I've been in meetings where the presenter will talk with great passion about how we can dig down deep in the data to learn more than ever before about students abilities and pinpoint areas of weakness.  That may be but what will we do with all this information?  At the elementary school level it will still likely be one teacher and twenty five to thirty five students.  I have yet to hear any insights on how that teacher will be able to alter time and space to be able to teach each student individually to cover all the areas where they need to improve.  Consider that if a student is below grade level in reading skills, say perhaps they are a fourth grade student reading a second grade level, studies show that they would need extra work beyond the regular school day, perhaps an extra two hours per day of focused instruction to get on track.  Any teacher could tell you that you don't need a series of tests to find out if a student can't read effectively at their grade level, from my experience you can determine this kind of information within the first week of school.
The latest tests promise to deliver data that is more nuanced and specific than ever before.  We're told that we can learn the particular style of non-fiction texts that a student has trouble understanding for example.  If school districts were funded to a level where they could employ a whole host of specialists just as a football team has coaches for the receivers, the linebackers, the running backs, etc. then we might be able to do something with all this data.  If these tests can show us, as they promise, the exact elements of a child's reading abilities for example that need more work, who will do the work of guiding that student?  Are we really expecting a single teacher to be the expert in every area and have the time and space to work one on one with every student?
The current testing structure takes a lot of time and energy.  The benefit we're told is the rich data.  If that data, however, has no realistic way of being used to meaningfully impact students then is it worth the time we take to discover it?
We are living in an interesting time indeed and I'm quite aware of that expression being used as a curse.  More and more data is available at every turn.  I can check my email now by simply looking at my wrist, never mind the outdated and difficult task of taking a mobile device out of my pocket.  In the world of consumer electronics we're trading money for these gadgets as well as the time spent looking at and consuming the data they provide and it is always worth asking if the deal is fair.  Is this worth the cost?  With the current trends in school testing we are also spending money, our tax dollars to be specific.  Is it worth the cost?  Could the millions paid to companies to produce and administer the tests be used better elsewhere?  Is it worth the time?  Make no mistake, when you are testing for several months out of the school year somethings are dropped from the school day.  Perhaps it's shorter recess times or maybe independent reading or the chance to develop a science experiment based on some new information you've read about.
The current push for data has very real costs in time and money.  If, as I would maintain, the data has little to no value due to the inability to use it in any meaningful way to positively impact the student's learning then I believe the costs are too high.  We are not getting a good deal.

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