Can schools cut back sharply on the number of tests that students have to take and still get a good idea of how well they are learning?
The state of Missouri is about to find out.
Missouri's state board of education has reduced the testing schedule dramatically — just a few months after approving a spending request for a testing schedule that would have had third graders taking seven hours of standardized tests each year, and high schoolers taking nine exams in four different subjects.
The board's vote in January meant a reduction of 51.1 percent in the hours of tests taken by students in grades 3, 4, 6 and 7, and a cut of 41.8 percent in the hours of tests taken in high school. Testing in grades 5 and 8, considered to be pivotal as students move up to their next school, stayed the same, and the state added a provision to pay for all high school students to take the ACT exam.
The changes, which take effect in the 2014-15 school year, came in response to complaints from a variety of educator groups, from teachers to principals to superintendents, that the earlier test schedule took too much time away from instruction in the classroom and cost too much money.
When the state board approved the change in January, members acknowledged the benefits — not the least of which was a smaller request for money from the legislature. But Peter Herschend, president of the board, voiced concerns about the effect of the shorter testing schedule on the ability to keep track of how well students are learning.
“This needs to be accurate,” he said. “We can’t sacrifice speed and we hope they’re doing pretty well. We need to know and the kids need to know and the teachers need to know.”
Officials with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education acknowledged that getting the same quality of information with fewer tests would be a challenge. But they concluded the tradeoff was one worth making.
“When we started adding up the hours,” said Michael Muenks, coordinator of assessments, about the original test schedule, “we had some concern about the amount of time, though the percentage of total time remains quite small. Nevertheless, it is a hurdle that I think many educators were seeing as difficult at best. Coupled with that, of course, was mounting concern about the cost.”
Later, he added:
“You can pull back and say, well, it would be nice if we had the time and money to get really detailed information. However, we can take a sampling across the top and in that sampling, while I can’t tell you in detail about very specific pieces of content, I can tell you in a survey fashion that yes, Michael is doing OK in third-grade English language arts.”
In the end, Herschend concluded the change was a reasonable one.
“Are there compromises in this?” he asked. “Absolutely; everybody had to give some. It’s a good set of compromises. The business of getting the assessments done is critically important, as is the combination of adding ACT as a universal test, just as other tests are all required. None of these tests on our schedule is an option.
“To get it done for some $3 million less is remarkable. This is certainly an ambitious step in the right direction.”
Concern from the start
The numbers in the original plan and the revised plan break down like this:
The first plan had students in grades 3-8 tested for four hours each year in English. In math, they would have taken three hours of tests in grades 3-5 and 3.5 hours in grades 6-8. An additional 2.5 hours of science tests would have come in grades 5 and 8.
Those science tests remain, but the other tests in English and math are cut significantly, except in grades 5 and 8, where the length of the test schedule stays the same. Otherwise, four hours of English tests and three hours of math tests were cut to half an hour of testing in each subject.
Similarly, the examination load in high school was trimmed sharply.
The earlier proposal had two tests each in English, math and social studies and three tests in science, plus what was called an “end of high school” test in both English and math. The new plan has just one test in each of the four subject areas, plus the state-paid ACT. Each proposal also includes a test in personal finance required by state law.
Also in the revised plan, the districts get results back sooner, making it easier for them to determine how well students are performing.
Why did the test schedule change so quickly after a request for money for the first one was proposed?
Sharon Helwig, DESE’s assistant commissioner of college and career readiness, said in an interview that a variety of education groups came to the department and said that the original plan had several flaws, including the overriding concerns of time and money.
In general, administrators, school boards and teachers groups wanted students to spend less time taking tests and more time learning.
“We met with those folks,” Helwig said, “and they told us what they really wanted to see, which was much less.
“We thought, OK, we would go back to the drawing board and look at this whole thing and see if we could come up with a plan that maintained the standards that we had and also had more instructional time.”
A summit meeting in January led to the final agreement, she said, which included the mandatory, state-paid ACT for all high school juniors, whose families would save the fee for the test, currently $52.50.
Even with that expense, the new plan costs $3 million less than DESE’s earlier budget request would have been, Helwig said.
“We didn’t want to put something in a budget request before legislators this year that didn’t have the support of educators,” she added. “We need that support for anything to be successful. We listened to them, they listened to us and we came up with this compromise.
“This is going to cost $3 million less — I think that helped in the legislature certainly. They felt better about that.”
Beyond finances, a key part of the debate was the value of tests in general.
The emphasis on using exams to determine how well students are progressing has been strong since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind program more than 10 years ago. Though most states, including Missouri, have earned waivers from those mandates, the need to track whether students are meeting expectations has remained a key component.
To take a quick detour into eduspeak here, the discussion also talked about the relative merits of formative assessments versus summative assessments. Briefly, formative assessments are given by teachers to track how well students understand what they have been learning in the classroom. Summative assessments are more a general snapshot of what they know, compared to an external benchmark.
Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, which helped shape the new testing plan, said the formative assessments give a better picture of how students are doing in their classwork. But “our folks felt that more testing was not going to show us any more than we already know” about that progress.
Pattonville Superintendent Mike Fulton, who was involved in the discussions with state officials, explained that “if you are not giving ongoing formative assessments, you don’t really know how kids are progressing toward expectations.”
The new test schedule, he added, provides “better real-time feedback” that is better matched to individual situations.
“The kind of one-size-fits-all accountability structure we had with No Child Left Behind did not give a lot of consideration to differences between elementary schools with high mobility and poverty,” Fulton said. “Everybody was judged by the same standard, in exactly the same way.”
Any discussion of school testing can quickly swerve to a debate over the Common Core State Standards that Missouri and most other states have adopted and will be implementing soon. Kurtz said Common Core was not a part of the debate over the revised testing schedule and he wants the state to continue its path toward putting those standards into practice.
“Our discussion focused on the relevancy of high school tests and the time and number of tests at the elementary level,” he said. “Our members were very supportive of the formative assessments that come as part of the package the state is purchasing. We really thought that could help drive instruction and improve instruction in the state.”
But not everyone is such a fan of Common Core. Again this year, bills to block its implementation in Missouri have been introduced in the General Assembly, and groups like Missouri Education Watchdog continue to oppose them.
Anne Gassel, who has testified against the standards in Jefferson City, also opposes the proliferation of testing in general.
“Standardized tests don’t do anything for the student,” she said in an interview. “They are not decent measures of a teacher’s teaching ability. They don’t provide anything that would help students in that year …
“Generally speaking, standardized tests are a better indicator of a student’s economic status than that student’s academic skills.”
Gretchen Logue, also with the watchdog group, called the state board’s vote to cut the number of mandated tests “a little disingenuous.”
“What they did,” she added, “is increase the number of tests, then reduced the number of the increase. As far as reducing assessment time, that’s really a little skewed.”
Both women said that problems with districts like Normandy can be traced to the benchmarks they are asked to meet without regard to factors outside of the classroom.
“This is the problem when you focus so intently on a student’s score,” Gassel said. “The only way to improve that score is to start meddling in the 60 percent of a child’s life that the school has no control over.”
“We need to give control back to the districts. They know their students and their families and their situation much better than outside private institutions.”