Local schools and students: Testing

Sara Thompson

Editors note: Because four out of five households in this area dont have children in public schools, we wanted to provide a useful overview through a series in the KP News. The first article provided a brief snapshot of the three elementary, one middle and one high school that serve our students. The second article covered basics of school funding. Here we review testing. The final article will cover the local school board. We welcome questions and comments.

Testing has become an emotional issue for students, teachers and parents over the past few years. For some, it represents an unwelcome intrusion, a symbol of encroachment by authorities into the classroom, a cause of anxiety for students and possibly even a threat to teachers integrity. For others, it is a way to measure student progress, a tool to identify gaps and find approaches to improve outcomes for students, teachers and schools.

The role of the federal government

The federal government first became actively involved in public education in the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson, who had been a teacher, identified education as an important tool in fighting poverty. In 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as part of the war on poverty. Title I, federal funding to support the education of students living in poverty, grew out of this program.

No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001 with broad bipartisan support, was a reauthorization of the ESEA. It expanded the federal role in public education through annual testing, annual academic progress report cards, teacher qualifications and funding changes.

It did not establish national learning standards but it did require states to develop assessments in basic skills. To receive federal school funding, states were required to assess all students at select grade levels.

Race to the Top was a program established in 2009 during the Obama administration. Using competitive grants, it sought to encourage educational reform. Grant recipients were required to adopt the Common Core standards and to use data in a more sophisticated way than is required by No Child Left Behind — students were followed for progress longitudinally and in addition, teacher evaluations were tied to student achievement.

The first two rounds of Race to the Top grants were opened in 2010. Washington applied for the second of the two rounds and was not awarded the grant.

History of standards and testing

It is impossible to talk about the history behind the current tests without including the history of common learning standards —proficiency tests are meant to measure whether or not students have mastered the concepts outlined by the standards. Jennifer Dempewolf, director of assessment and accountability at Peninsula School District, noted that Washington state was an early adopter of common learning standards.

The states first standards (in reading, writing, math and science) were established in 1994, with testing for assessment (Washington Assessment of Student Learning or WASL) starting in 1997. Passing exams as a high school graduation requirement started in 2006. Over the past 20 years, tests and their acronyms have changed, as have the learning standards, testing intervals and graduation requirements.

During this time, at a national level, governors and business leaders joined to form Achieve, a nonpartisan group helping to lead education reform. Their resulting report in 2004 concluded that high schools were not providing the skills necessary for students to succeed in a world with increasing demands for college and career readiness. In response, the National Governors Association convened a group to develop the Common Core standards. They were released in 2010 and Washington adopted them in 2011.

Chuck Cuzzetto, superintendent of the Peninsula School District, had this to say in support of the Common Core: “Its like mom and apple pie. The learning standards are more rigorous than earlier ones, are consistent across all states, and are competitive internationally.”

He thinks that most of the negativity arises from confusion between the learning standards and the tests designed to measure proficiency.

This year saw big transitions in Washington state. Four years after introducing the Common Core, testing based on these new standards took place.

How test results are used

Cuzzetto emphasized that evaluation of student progress has always been a part of the educational system, and described it as a pyramid approach. At the base is the classroom — teachers judge how effective their curriculum is on a daily basis by observing their students; they also use homework, projects and classroom exams. On a buildingwide level, schools evaluate progress toward their identified goals (which may involve the standardized test scores or other measures, depending on what is in their schoolwide strategic plan).

The district, likewise, uses test scores as part of its overall strategic plan evaluation. Finally, the state uses test data as part of its evaluation and reporting of schools and districts.

Prior to high school, test results can help identify individual students who might need additional support the following year but progression to the next grade level is based on teachers classroom evaluations and not standardized test results. Passing standardized tests (biology, math, English/language arts) is a high school graduation requirement. The tests required for graduation have recently changed, and for many students there are alternatives.

Uproar over testing

The Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) was used for the first time this year. Refusal to take the exam was widely reported. Cuzzetto and Dempewolf noted that refusal was not a major issue in the Peninsula School District. Statewide, 95 percent of students in third through eighth grades took the SBA; that dropped to 50 percent in high school.

Some high school students simply had no personal benefit from taking the new exam. Students who will graduate in 2016 must pass the 10th grade HSPE (or the 11th grade SBA). They took the HSPE last year. So when they were asked to take the 11th grade SBA this year, many students refused. For schools and districts, the results could serve a useful role, allowing them to assess curriculum and begin the process of improving and adjusting.

Testing takes time

Many teachers and parents have expressed concern about the amount of time that testing requires and its impact on classroom teaching. Dempewolf summarized the actual amount of time as follows:

Grades three through eight and 11th are tested yearly. The math and the English/language arts exams take three to four hours each.

Grade 10 biology exam (taken at the end of the biology class) takes two hours.

But she and Cuzzetto acknowledged that the logistics of administering a new test using computers presented logistical challenges and the impact on classroom time this year was significant, particularly in middle and high school.

Looking into the future

Cuzzetto and Dempewolf see value in Common Core and in the data that standardized testing can offer. They noted that the last few years have been especially full of change. With new learning standards and new curriculum — and now with new tests — students, teachers and administrators are all part of a steep learning curve. It is likely that the tests will be tweaked. Perhaps the testing frequency and intervals will be adjusted.

It is certain that the percentage of students judged proficient on the tests this year will be lower than in the past. This is virtually always the case when new standards and tests are introduced.

And early state reports indicate that this is true — “passing” scores have gone from an average of about 80 percent to an average of 50 percent.

Cuzzetto is confident that students in the district will outperform the state average, as has been the case in the past. But the number of students graded as proficient will fall. And over the next several years, as the curriculum builds, the number of students passing will rise again.

Over time, testing requirements and intervals will undoubtedly change. At the state level, the Legislature stepped back from the requirement to pass the biology EOC exam to graduate this year. At the national level, as Congress reviews the ESEA, it is likely that earlier stringent testing requirements will be decreased.