Back to school means back to testing

/ 11 September 2012 / eunice

Dawn Quigley, Star Tribune Commentary, September 11, 2012 – September can mean only one thing: getting back. For kids, it’s back to school. For parents it’s back to sanity. But for teachers, it means a thing altogether different. For us, it means back to testing.

I like to say that Minnesota has never met an assessment that it didn’t like. Now, I’m not saying that giving tests in school is bad. What I’m saying is let’s take a deeper look at how and why we administer them.

In most schools, the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) is given once in the fall and again in the spring. The NWEA assessment (sometimes referred to as the “MAP” test, or Measure of Academic Progress) is taken on the computer in both math and reading and uses an algorithm that raises or lowers the difficulty of questions based on the student’s previous answer, finally settling on the end score.

The testing data are gathered and used to determine a lexile (or numeric reading level), and also can monitor a student’s growth from fall to spring, and from year to year. On average, a student will take this test four times in a school year (twice a year in two subjects each).

Great. The more we know about our kids the better, right? But don’t forget that even though the NWEA Reading is called a reading test, it also assesses language arts knowledge.

So even if a student were to read the Shakespeare passage to perfection, but couldn’t answer if it was an example of a simile or metaphor, he or she would get this question wrong. And someone looking at the score may assume that this missed question means the student can’t read Shakespeare, and therefore, should be put into a remedial course for struggling readers.

Is your head spinning yet? But wait. There’s more.

Some school districts included other assessments. Accelerated Reader (AR) is touted as a reading program, but in actuality is an assessment program that tests students after they read certain books. For example, if you read “Harry Potter” and received a passing score, you may earn 45 points. A teacher may require 100 points per semester to achieve an “A.”

And there’s more again. A school district may also give the EXPLORE test (the ACT test for eighth- and ninth-grade students), which tests multiple subjects and stresses the importance of monitoring students’ progress to be on target for college and career readiness.

Fabulous. The more information we have, the better. Right? But now, fast-forward to spring, when the big guns come out.

The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) is Minnesota’s standardized tests, administered in math and reading (third through eighth grades and again in 10th), along with science (fifth and eighth grades and again in high school). Of course, ninth-graders aren’t left out of the loop, since they take the state’s writing test.

Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. Having too much data and testing scores causes confusion at times. I’ve known students who have been placed in remedial courses because they scored in the lowest 25 percent on the NWEA in a subject, but still managed to score highly (in the “Meets requirements and Exceeds”) on the MCA assessment in the same subject in the same year.

Huh? Are you as confused as I am?

Now, all of these standardized tests are in addition to the end-of-quarter tests, quizzes, essays, chapter tests and final tests given in a school year. Which test do we tell our students is the most important? What testing data do we use to determine growth and needs for remediation if a student needs extra help?

In some districts last year, eighth-grade students took eight standardized tests — if not more. At times, teachers had difficulty getting into a school’s computer lab for research papers or projects because the lab was tied up with — you guessed it — testing.

Best practice in education calls for multiple data points when charting academic progress, including a student’s grade-point average. Fine. I totally agree. But let’s not forget the most important thing in education.

We are not teaching to the test. We are not racing to beat the scores of schools across town. Nor are we teaching “Test Prep” skills. We are teaching human beings. Real live people who, let’s not forget, are kids.

Kids who don’t know who to believe when we tell them, “Really, Johnny, I know you’ve taken six other tests this year that take from one to four hours to complete, but you still need to take two more assessments … and they all are important.”

Johnny may be able to read, write and do math just fine. But Johnny may not take tests well, or may just give a marginal effort due to testing fatigue.

“But the scores,” some exclaim — “the numbers … they’re so important!” Let me ask you this: Are you defined by the number on the scale, the number on your credit score, or the number on your paycheck? It’s one aspect of you, but not the sum total.

These numbers may give you a glimpse of what you are now, but they don’t tell where, or how far, you’re going in life. I will never, as long as I live, pass an eye exam. I am not defined by failing that test. Yet after I put on my corrective lenses — 20/20 every time. The key, when you score poorly on a test, is to use strategies and accommodations (like my glasses) to succeed and forge ahead.

And especially to you students: It is imperative that you begin to learn about each assessment and find out what each is measuring. Find out which tests count toward graduation. Knowledge is power, and the key in testing is to understand them.

Take them seriously. Take them the best you can, although they are at times grueling and monotonous; your testing scores are used to place you in advanced or remedial courses.

But make sure to advocate for yourself and remind those in charge that looking only at one measure is a flat dimension of your academic life.

Parents, teachers and students: Testing is not going away anytime soon. For now, we all live in Minnesota: Land of 10,000 assessments.

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Dawn Quigley, of Forest Lake, is a wife, mother and teacher.

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