High Stakes Litmus Test

It’s nearly impossible these days to have a conversation with someone about public schools that doesn’t involve testing. At some point it’s highly likely that the symbol for “education” will shift from a flame or an apple to a Scantron sheet.

The term “testing” itself has changed over time in the American lexicon. People that use the term “testing” today are usually referring to so-called high-stakes tests. As the name suggests, a high-stakes test has important consequences for the test taker, as well as the teacher, school, district and state of the test taker. These are tests that determine whether a student will be promoted, whether a teacher will be retained or whether a school earns the correct grade to keep the neighborhood property values high.

There are about as many opinions on testing as there are standardized tests- especially in Florida. The last thing the world needs is another teacher’s opinion on testing so I’m not going to do that here.

What I am going to do, however, is to give you some historical perspective about testing by comparing the testing experiences of two fourth grade students attending a public school in Hillsborough County, FL thirty years apart. I know these students quite well as one is me and one is my son.

In 1984, I began the school year as a fourth grade student at the newly opened Lopez Elementary in Seffner, FL. As best as I can remember, testing during my school year was fairly typical of most experiences before No Child Left Behind. I was given tests on the core academic subjects of the time – reading, math, science, social studies- at the completion of the chapter, usually once a month. Our class also had weekly spelling tests. Most of the writing I recall was creative writing. This may be because it was, and still is, my favorite genre of writing.

Near the end of the school year we were given our “state” test- the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, or CTBS. As a student I remember being aware of the test during the school year, mostly because I had an older brother and knew that he’d taken the same test in fourth grade previously. As best I can recall, the CTBS included two days of reading, two days of math and one day of a memorization-like vocabulary test that included nonsense words. To this day, I still remember that a “baloo” is a bear and “wuzzle” means to mix. (1)

That’s all I remember about testing. No stress, no stakes, no concerns from my parents or teachers. No pep rallies at the school, no pep talks from my principal. (For the record, I’ve been in contact with several teachers that were working in my school district during this time and they confirm my recollection.)

My son began the fourth grade this school year. I’ve checked with his teachers and my assistant principal and I have confirmed that he is taking the following tests this school year:

Test

Purpose

Approximately 30 monthly “chapter” tests in the core academic areas: reading, writing, math & science Determine content mastery
Three sessions of the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading Demonstrate mastery of the Florida Standards

Provide data to the state on student reading performance

Three science formative assessments developed by the school district Demonstrate mastery of the Florida Standards

Provide a VAM score for his teacher

Three math formative assessments developed by the school district Evaluate progress towards mastery of the Florida Standards

Try to predict how he’ll perform on the FSA

Two language arts interim assessments developed by the school district Evaluate progress towards mastery of the Florida Standards

Try to predict how he’ll perform on the FSA

Two writing interim assessments developed by the school district Evaluate progress towards mastery of the Florida Standards

Try to predict how he’ll perform on the FSA

Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) in reading, writing and math Demonstrate mastery of the Florida Standards

Provide a VAM score for his teachers

End-of-year assessments in art, music and physical education Provide a VAM score for his teachers

 

Assuming only one test per day (because instruction still needs to take place every day) that’s approximately 51 days of the 180-day school year that he’s taking some sort of test. I only wish I were exaggerating. (2)

Fortunately, my son is performing at or above grade level. If he were a struggling student, he’d be taking more tests as dictated by the state and district’s Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (3) intervention model. He would have additional tests every 1-3 weeks depending on his level of support.

I’m not nostalgic for the education system to return to the way it was 30 years ago. That system failed many of our students, including my brother. I do, however, long for the days when students had time to learn and teachers had time to teach.

The only accountability that our current accountability system has is to itself. We’re giving some tests to gauge student performance on future tests and other tests to gauge teacher performance based on student performance on tests. Testing students has become a litmus test for what we seem to value- more tests. Surely we can do better.

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1. Out of curiosity I searched Google for these test phrases. If you’re nostalgic there are all kinds of references to these phrases- from blogs to t-shirts and more.

2. The testing calendar for all grade levels of Hillsborough County Public Schools can be found here: http://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/calendar/print/14/?-1

3. Multi-tiered Systems of Support, Hillsborough County Public Schools. http://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/doc/215

 

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