Too much testing in schools?

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Tests. Tests. And more tests.

Depending on the grade level, kids today face an alphabet soup of exams.

The SAT. The AP. And the state-mandated MCAS, which Berkshire County students in elementary, middle and high school just finished taking for the year.

Tests add up to valuable hours -- an estimated two weeks of the school year is spent taking state exams.

"It's way too much," said Marci Hinman, a junior at Taconic High School in Pittsfield.

Hinman isn't alone in that view.

The time spent on testing -- and the number and kinds of tests students are required to take -- has come into question this school year.

State education officials say they are committed to reducing the overall testing time for students, but with talk of less comes evidence of more, as everyone from local school boards to President Obama have called for education reform to prepare children with 21st-century skills.

These skills include knowing world languages, having financial literacy, possessing creative and critical thinking abilities, being literate in media and technology, and demonstrating leadership, among other qualities.

None of these subjects is currently tested or graded universally.

Test mania

In Berkshire County, students are given benchmark tests on academic progress and individual development throughout the year, in addition to the common classroom quizzes and year-end exams. All of those tests require preparation time and practice testing.

In late April, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) approved and awarded a five-year, $146 million contract to Measured Progress, a company that creates and distributes the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams.

In a statement briefing DESE board members on the contract, state education commissioner Mitchell D. Chester wrote: "The enhancements that the company has committed to implement include a reduction in overall testing time for students."

A DESE spokesman told The Eagle that proposed test changes include a reduction of one test session for each student in English Language Arts (ELA) across all grades, and a 15 percent reduction in the average time it should take students to finish math and science exams.

Also, a major overhaul of the federal No Child Left Behind Act is on the horizon. Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, has called the mandate "toxic."

Enacted in 2001 by former President George W. Bush, the law, in part, enforces the use of standardized tests to ensure that all children in the country's public schools are making "adequate yearly progress." The law dictates that all children must pass state tests, guided by the federal standards, by the year 2014.

That's why educators have dubbed the practice of using these assessments as "high-stakes testing." The threat is that underperforming schools could be taken over by government education boards or, in dire situations, closed.

In 2006, the Center on Education Policy published a report called "Ten Big Effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on Public School."

The research found evidence that test scores have improved and that schools are using data and best teaching practices to determine what schools should teach and how children should be taught. But the effects also include students spending more time testing, having more government involvement in schools, and teachers spending more time teaching math and English Language Arts at the expense of other subjects that aren't mandated.

With the current calls for national, state and local education reform, the number of hours students spend on test-taking is tipping toward more.

In a June 15 press release from the U.S. Department of Education, Secretary Duncan said the department will commit up to $350 million of its $4.35 billion in stimulus money from the "Race to the Top" Fund to develop "rigorous assessments linked to the internationally benchmarked common standards being developed by states."

"Perhaps for the first time, we have enough money to really make a difference. We have proven strategies for success in schools all across America. This is where reform will play out. It will filter up from classrooms and schools, districts and localities, but then it will arrive on your desks," Duncan said at a June 14 meeting with the National Governors Association.

Time out for testing

Currently, the amount of time spent test-taking varies by individual students. The MCAS is an untimed test, as are similar exams in other states. There is little data available on exactly how much time students spend on testing.

Asked about that total time, outgoing Taconic High School Principal Douglas McNally said it was "adequate."

"We need to do some global assessment," McNally said. But he added, "Much more time would negatively impact instructional time."

In Massachusetts, the MCAS is the No. 1 testing component. MCAS tests have been in constant development since the Education Reform Act of 1993. First administered in 1998 for English Language Arts and mathematics, MCAS combines multiple-choice and composition formats and became a high school graduation requirement in 2000.

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For many high schools, this past week was full of finals: end-of-the-year exams given by teachers to determine how well students learned the subjects they were taught. Earlier this month, all public-school students in the state in grades 3 through 8 and Grade 10 finished the math and English portions of the MCAS. (Students have the opportunity to retake the tests in grades 11 and 12 if they fail them in Grade 10.)

Students in grades 5 and 8 and some high school students also took MCAS tests in science and technology/engineering.

The state board of education piloted MCAS science and history exams in 2006 and 2007. And though the Class of 2010 will have to pass the science tests to graduate, the state board of education voted to hold off two years on giving the history test, largely because of cost.

Though MCAS tests are untimed, the average third-grader spends 41 2 hours in test sessions, and the average 10th-grader spends nearly 10 hours, according to state data.

Additional school-required exams vary from 10 minutes to three hours in length.

Those are in addition to nationally given SAT and Advanced Placement tests at the high school level. SATs are used by colleges as a screening tool for admission; students who pass AP tests can receive college credit.

Teachers have to adapt their lesson plans to fit the state tests.

"Our feeling here in terms of curriculum is that we teach the [state] frameworks whether we test or not," said Jeff Lang, a history and journalism teacher at Mount Everett Regional School in Sheffield. "We have it down pretty much to a routine."

So, apparently, do the students.

"I've taken, like, 30 tests in my lifetime," said Nick Perrault, a Taconic High sophomore who said his main objection is the early- morning test time. "So really, it's the timing of it. Otherwise it's not that big of a problem."

Testing the test

This past spring, Susan Hollister, a fifth-grade teacher at Stearns Elementary School in Pittsfield, completed a thesis titled "High-stakes Testing: The Assessment that Has Left All Children Behind" for a master's degree in education from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

In the introduction she wrote: "High-stakes standardized testing not only compromises the level of curriculum being taught, it also compromises the quality of education, as the amount of time taken away from the classroom instruction to administer standardized tests has increased."

Hollister referred to tests such as DIBELS, or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, which is a widely used series of evaluations usually administered at the elementary school level, at the discretion of the school. Another of those tests is Galileo, which monitors individual progress.

Those systems, along with the MCAS, are administered during the school day.

In her research, Hollister interviewed nine area teachers and administrators about their observed effects of testing on the education process, anonymously reporting their accounts. An elementary-school math teacher estimated that a quarter of the school year is used between testing and practice testing vs. curriculum instruction.

The math teacher told Hollister, "The time taken away from education for practice tests is increasing. It's increasing exponentially. And going all the way down to second and first grade."

Whether this is too much or too little is debatable.

Great Barrington resident Nancy Missaggia, a parent of an elementary-school student and a high-school student, posed a thought: "How much time is too much time? How much is too little? Is there a guideline in regards to how much time should be spent with our children preparing them for the now-required MCAS testing?"

Massachusetts requires all primary-school students to complete 900 hours of "structured learning time" each year, and secondary students to complete 990 hours. This time is directed to classroom instruction in core subject areas such as English Language Arts, mathematics and science, and in other fields of study, including physical education and art.

It limits the amount of unstructured time of the school day, such as study halls.

However, the DESE doesn't limit or have guidelines on how much time should be spent on annual standardized and benchmark testing, the preparation for the assessments, or the actual taking of the exams.

Analysts of testing in Massachusetts say the time spent on test preparation should be a concern.

"The trend is more and more toward test prep," said Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an author and educational consultant.

But how will schools, working with the state and federal governments, ultimately figure out how much time to spend on testing and on what subjects?

Wagner said the answers will have to come from institutions of education and from the workforce, for which schools ultimately are preparing the students.

"It will be the CEOs speaking up for the skills that matter most to them," Wagner said. "It will take a coalition of business leaders and educators to advocate for change."

Jenn Smith can be reached
at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6239.


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