State Testing: ‘Tis The Season

‘Tis The Season … For State Testing, That Is!

Spring has sprung! Days are getting longer, the weather is getting better, and the plants are blooming. What else is happening? Around our great nation, students are sitting at a computer and taking some form of standardized test to measure what they have learned this year. Ahh, standardized testing. To some, it is the great equalizer, an opportunity to see how an individual stacks up against their peers. To others, it is the downfall of modern society.

Steve here! I would like to chime in on this greatest of all educational debates. As a former teacher and current administrator, I believe I can add something to the discussion. I welcome all others to chime in as well. I should let you know up front that I have a very strong opinion on state testing. If you disagree…good! This is a blog post, right? I am supposed to get people thinking, talking, and even arguing (in a civil way, of course) 🙂

Where did this state testing idea come from?

Who is to blame? Will it go away?

Way Back When

The year was 1965. The war on poverty was in full swing. As part of the war on poverty, President Lyndon Johnson enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I will spare you the history lesson (that is what Google is for), but in essence, President Johnson believed the way out of poverty was education. The premise is logical to me. We have all seen those graphs that demonstrate how much money you make as your education level rises. So, that’s where it all began. The idea that as a nation, we should really look at how we are educating our children. Not only how we are educating them, but asking “does it work”? If our approach doesn’t work, then what should we do?

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Improving America’s Schools Act. It was a reauthorization of the 1965 act signed by President Johnson. What is significant about this act is that it was the beginning of standards and accountability of teachers, students, and administrators.

Next came No Child Left Behind. This little bill was enacted by President George Bush. NCLB (No Child Left Behind) upped the ante significantly for educators throughout the country. The key tenant of this act was that it required states to develop assessments in basic skills. To receive federal school funding, states were required to give these assessments to all students at select grade levels. I was a young teacher when NCLB was enacted. I can tell you, it was a game changer!

NCLB was the standard by which the education world abided until the concept of coming up with a national set of standards was brought forth. The idea was that no matter where a student was in the country, be it in Maine, Kansas, or California, a single set of academic standards would guide teachers in their instruction. Thus the Common Core State Standards were created. With the exception of a few states, most of the country has now adopted Common Core. The concept in many ways makes sense. Shouldn’t a student in Florida be learning the same standards as a student in Washington state. This is a huge debate for many! Why can’t states make their own decisions. Who needs the Feds sticking their noses where they don’t belong!! My thoughts on that later.

Tests, Tests, and More Tests!

If you have standards, you have to assess those standards, right? Whether the standards are created by each state or the Feds, you still need to see if students are learning what they are supposed to. I am an educator in Washington State, so I will give you a quick run down of how NCLB impacted teachers here in Washington. The first iteration of a state test came in the form of the WASL, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. It was a paper pencil test given in specific subjects at certain grade levels. WASL ruled the roost for several years until the MSP came along. MSP or Measurements of Student Progress was the middle school replacement for the WASL. For high schools it was the High School Proficiency Exam, or HSPE. Up to this point, tests were tied to an adopted set of state standards.

This year, in Washington State, we are taking the SBAC or SBA. The SBA or Smarter Balanced Assessment is tied to the Common Core. This assessment was created by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a group of really smart people with a lot of time on their hands. Is the SBA better than the MSP or HSPE? I don’t know. I will tell you one thing, it is certainly more rigorous! The assessments have a traditional computer component, the Computer Adaptive Test, and also an additional component call a Performance Task. Again, you can research the specifics if you would like, but the idea is that the game has changed again. This is a nationally normed test tied to a national set of standards. This is another HUGE source of debate! Some would argue that we are killing our kids with tests. The pressure brought on by these tests are going to damage these poor kids. Or at the least damage some egos!

Let The Arguing Begin!

Here is your chance to let me have it! I believe a national set of standards and said test are a good thing! Better yet, I think it is a great thing!! Standardized tests are an excellent tool for getting a diagnostic exam on a student’s learning. The more normed the better. In my school, we use these types of tests for placing students in advanced classes, placing students in special programs, or just as a data point for academic interventions. When I say the more normed the better, I mean the more students who take the exam, the greater the picture of how students should perform we can get.

Also, I believe more and more colleges will begin to use the SBA as an entrance exam. Six states already are; California, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington. Why? Because colleges, especially highly competitive universities such as Stanford, Vanderbilt, Ivy League schools need a clear picture of who is applying. Universities have the ACT and SAT, but outside of that, they rely on transcripts to get an academic picture of a student. In the past, there was no guarantee of a rigorous academic program from state to state. A student in a state with rigorous state standards was not on an even plane with a student who sat in a state with more lax standards. The SBA gives schools another data point to determine entrance. As a parent who has children who hope to attend a higher academic institution, I welcome the tests.

The final argument I would like to weigh in on is the idea that we are killing our kids with “high stakes” testing. Standardized testing has been around for ever. Does anyone remember taking the ITBS? I do! I believe this idea is nonsense. I can tell you the students at my school are doing just fine. Standardized testing K-12 has been a part of our students’ lives from the very beginning. They know no different. The reality is that it will not go away. I never took the WASL or MSP, but I have taken the ITBS, ACT, GRE, MAT, ASVAB, DLAB, various college finals, comprehensive exams for my masters degree, and the Washington State Drivers Exam (which I failed the first time)! With the exception of an occasional flashback and night sweats, I have survived. Our children are strong, bright, hard working individuals! They will take on any challenge put before them. Many students will take entrance exams for college, the military, law school, medical school, etc. Is it “high stakes” testing? You bet! Will they survive? Absolutely! If anything, the current state testing will only prepare them for what is to come!!

What are your thoughts on state testing?

I know you have them! Let me know.

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  1. Hi Kirsten,
    Blake here. I am not sure which state your sister is in, but in my state, the growth component of a teacher’s evaluation is actually a small part of the overall evaluation. Further, the rubric language for a teacher to be proficient is something like “most of a teacher’s students will show clear growth from multiple data points”. Most would mean 50% plus one student would show clear growth on the assessments used to show growth. And, what constitutes clear growth and which assessments are used are also determined by the teacher and their evaluator. I hope everyone would agree that if a teacher has a class of 30 students, 16 of them would show clear growth during a school year. If a teacher is not proficient in the growth area of their evaluation, it does not mean they automatically loose their job, either. It means the teacher and the evaluator will develop a plan for improvement for the following year. It is only when a teacher shows a pattern of no growth for their students that their job is in jeopardy. Again, I would argue that if a teacher is consistently not getting their students to learn, they may be in the wrong profession.

    Further, the assessments used are agreed upon between a teacher and their evaluator. For us, we could not even use state testing as a data source because the data must be collected for two points in time that fall within the same school year. It is my opinion that most of the worry and concern about using “high stakes” testing is coming from people outside of the classroom. The controversy makes for good press clippings.

    Your other points about Common Core are valid. Like any new initiative or product, there are bugs to be worked out. The premise, however, I believe is good. Thank you for your response to the post!

  2. I don’t have children in school (yet), so I have largely ignored the debate. The little I know if it is from my sister, a former high school English teacher who now works as a lobby-est for the teachers in her state. She is totally opposed to the way the tests are used to grade teachers. In her state, teachers raises and tenure and everything is tied tot he scores on the test. Have a few too many children who are on the “slower” end? Tough for you! You will be disciplined! I definitely disagree with using any sort of testing SOLELY as a means of teacher success.

    I also believe her state still does their regular state exams on top of the common core exams, so there definitely is a feeling of killing the children with tests if that’s true. That seems overkill.

    I’m also not a fan of the current common core, which was developed with far too many people who are not educators. The new math stuff is crap. As an engineer, I believe children should be taught more than one method to solving a problem, but they should then be able to pick which method resonates with them in order to solve problems. They are not being given that option (as evidenced by the many Facebook posts I see from parents). Having said that, I think a common core is an awesome idea. I think it was developed and implemented in too far of a rush with not the right inputs.

  3. My son was way ahead of the curve, so I don’t know what it’s like for parents whose children have learning problems, I do know that when he was in the 5th grade, he brought home his report card and it was covered with “E’s”. Um, E’s? In the 5th grade??? So Jay and I went to the school to discuss this. Apparently, someone at the top decided that children who weren’t doing as well in school needed some encouragement, so they decided to make the grading easier on them. Okay, Jay is not a “flipper outer”, like ever, but that one just about put him in the “flip out” zone! Well, apparently he wasn’t the only one, and the E’s and S’s and U’s, etc., were replaced with A’s, B’s, and C’s, etc., again, by the following marking period.

    All I know is, if all of the ridiculous political correctness was taken out of the education system, we’d have a much brighter population. The Japanese sure know what they’re doing!

    Great article, as always, Mr. and Mrs. Jones (tee hee)! 🙂

  4. I wish I could chime in more about this topic, but I honestly just don’t know enough about it. I learned a heck of a lot from this post alone though, and I think it will be more and more important for me to become more educated on it within the next few years before my daughter is in school and having to take these tests.

    1. Hi Christina,

      If you live in a Common Core state, which your kids will take the SBA, they will do fine. I am at a school with over 900 students, grades 6-8. Our students seem to be doing great. Again, this generation of students are used to spring time testing. To them, it is normal. Thank you for your response to the post!

    1. Hi lz,

      I think the major complaint about CCSS is that it was developed by individuals from outside the education community. It is a valid point. Tests to be given to students in the public education realm should probably be developed by individuals in public education. I also believe their is a group of individuals who simply do not want the feds telling them what to do. As I have said, there has always been standards and there always will be standards to be taught to. Thanks for your response!

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