So There’s A Moratorium. Now What?

Those seeking a moratorium on using high stakes tests to judge teachers seem to have gotten what they asked for. What happens now?

Remember that a “moratorium” is nothing more than ‘a suspension of activity.’  It does not imply any pro-active behavior or a re-examination of current policies. It’s merely a time of doing nothing.  Should we celebrate because Bill Gates, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Washington (DC) Superintendent Kaya Henderson, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have gotten what they wanted?  I don’t think so.

This very limited moratorium means that scores on the new Common Core standardized tests won’t be used to evaluate teachers in many places.  That’s what some might call a necessary but hardly sufficient action.

This moratorium doesn’t mean that a truce has been called between the warring sides in the battle over teacher job protection and evaluation. That war is ongoing, sadly.

And this moratorium doesn’t mean that school districts are now going to examine the role or amount of standardized bubble testing.

And there’s a lot of it [1].  Take Lee County, Florida, recently in the news for flirting with the possibility of defying the state on its testing requirements. Believe it or not, that system will be administering a standardized test to some it its students every single day of the school year. Reporter Emily Atteberry of the News-Press wrote, “If the testing calendar is approved, there will be an exam administered every day of Lee’s 180-day school year.  A News-Press analysis of the district’s tentative testing calendar found that there are 175 tests administered over 95 testing windows throughout the year. Some of the testing windows are more than a month long. While there aren’t 175 different tests, many are administered multiple times throughout the year.”

For a close look at the staggering amount of testing there, here are the testing calendars for elementary, middle and high schools there.

On his blog, Secretary Duncan wrote, “Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress.”

The Secretary also questioned the number of tests schools give.  “And we also need to recognize that in many places, the sheer quantity of testing – and test prep – has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction.”

I suggest we take the Secretary at his word and request the following from our school superintendents.  For convenience, here’s a simple fill-in-the-blank format.

Students in our district will take _____ standardized, machine-scored tests during the course of the year.  Is this an appropriate number?

Of these tests,  _____ were selected by the district, and  _____ are required by the state.

A student who attends our district from Kindergarten through graduation will take  _____ standardized tests during his or her time in school. Is this number too high, too low or about right?

There are only  _____ days on our 180-day calendar when a standardized test is NOT being administered. [2]

Some test results determine a child’s promotion, while others are used to evaluate schools and teachers. Is this the right approach?  How useful is this information?  Should we test only a carefully drawn sample [3] of students when we want to evaluate schools, instead of testing every student?

Right now we test all students in only  _____ subjects.  However, if we are going to evaluate all teachers according to their students’ scores, we will need to test in more subjects, including art, science, social studies and music.  Is this advisable?

There is a —- month lag time between the administration of a test and the delivery of the results.  Is this acceptable?

Our school district spends $_____ per year to buy and score standardized tests. (These out-of-pocket costs do not include the labor costs.)  This amounts to less than _____ % of our annual school budget. [4]  Is this amount low, high or about right?

We devote  _____ hours per year to testing, out of approximately 900 hours of actual class time during the 180-day school year.  Is this amount excessive, too little, or about right?

In addition, many teachers devote another  ____ hours to what is known as ‘test prep.’ The numbers vary from teacher to teacher and school to school and are difficult to pinpoint, but nevertheless the issue merits public discussion.

Last year we fired  _____ teachers because their students’ scores did not go up sufficiently.

Last year we distributed $$ _____ in cash awards to teachers whose students’ scores went up well beyond the expected level.

Last year we investigated  _____ incidents of alleged cheating on standardized tests,  _____ by students and  _____ by teachers and other administrators.

I hope you will join me in a spirited public discussion [5] about testing.

A few superintendents are speaking out about excessive testing. Unfortunately, their powerful messages are strong on emotion but woefully short of factual information. For example, Mark Cross of Peru (Illinois) Elementary District 24 sent this letter to parents.

Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently published an op-ed in the Miami Herald that is also short on specifics.

His op-ed followed some careful reporting on testing by the Miami Herald.

Rhode Island plans a 1-year review of testing, but the call to action [6] is also devoid of data.

Study groups are one thing; action is another. Kudos to the Pittsburgh School Board for voting to reducing the hours devoted to testing in the early grades.  A paragraph from Eleanor Chute’s report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette indicates how out-of-control testing had become:  “The biggest reductions are planned in grades 3, 4 and 5 where the number of periods spent in testing are to decline from 85.5 periods to 41.5 periods. After school board member Sherry Hazuda was told one period equals 45 minutes, she said, “No wonder people are complaining when you see it like that.”

Are you doing the math?  85.5 periods is roughly 60 HOURS of class time devoted to giving standardized tests to 8-, 9- and 10-year olds!   Going forward, only 30 hours!  (Bear in mind that a full school year has perhaps 900 hours of class time, meaning that Pittsburgh’s young children were devoting 7.5% of that time to taking bubble tests.)

FairTest, the anti-standardized testing organization, seems to think the tide has turned in the battle against over-testing. It recently published “Testing Reform Victories: The First Wave,” celebrating what it calls “an explosion of resistance [7].”

FairTest is hardly a neutral observer. In fact, everyone seems to have significant skin in the game, making it difficult to identify an organization [8] that could credibly lead an inquiry into the role of standardized bubble tests in public education.

I can think of only one candidate, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. NNSTOY, which was founded in 1980, has an Executive Director, Katherine Bassett, whose goal is to make the organization ‘impactful,’ one Board member told me recently.  NNSTOY’s list of 25 partners includes so many players–including Pearson and the National Council on Teaching Quality, two of the left’s favorite whipping boys–that I doubt if any of them wields much influence.  Boards set an organization’s policies, and most of NNSTOY’s Board members are classroom teachers who have been honored within the profession for their skill and dedication.

Would NNSTOY call on superintendents and school boards to fill in the blanks on the document above and then engage in a public-spirited discussion of the goals and purposes of schooling?

Someone has to….

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1. Superintendent Nicholas Gledich of District 11 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, wrote to remind me that “There have been several studies of testing and lost instructional time.  One study of two urban school districts performed by the AFT in 2013 found that testing takes 20-50 hours per student per year. Test prep can take from 60 to more than 110 hours per pupil per year.  At a cost of $6.15 per hour, this amounts to a cost of of $700 to $1000 per year per pupil just on testing, the equivalent cost of adding an hour to the school day. (“Testing More, Teaching Less;” Howard Nelson, 2013).
  2. 2. Be prepared to be surprised by the answer here because Lee County is not alone. Christina Veiga of The Miami Herald reported a story headlined ‘In Miami-Dade the Testing Never Stops.” She wrote, “Out of the 180-day academic year, Miami-Dade County schools will administer standardized tests on every day but eight.” 
  3. 3. This is a perfectly plausible approach, as we reported on the PBS NewsHour recently.
  4. 4. This number will probably NOT be high because most schools buy cheap tests. In Lee County, Florida, for example, the $5,258,493 it spends on testing is not even one-half of one percent of the district’s budget.
  5. 5. I raised this general issue with David Hornbeck, the veteran educator who served as Superintendent in Philadelphia and State Superintendent in Maryland and Kentucky. He suggested a deeper conversation, by pursuing the following lines of inquiry:

    -How does the testing program contribute to or detract from collaboration among teachers?

    -How much planning time (and training to use it effectively) does the system provide teachers for data analysis and instructional improvement based on assessment results?

    -When assessment reveals that a school repeatedly is not doing well, what system is in place to help the school improve its performance? How much money is spent on it?

    -How much more money would a system need to have an assessment “system” that would result in “test prep” that actually scaffolded learning that is valued and, thus, encouraged?

    -How could time be used to make assessment an integral part of the instructional program? How much more time would have to be devoted to assessment to make that a reality?

  6. 6. When Reporter Linda Borg asked readers to vote on whether Rhode Island schools were testing too much, 73% of the 1409 voters said ‘No.’
  7. 7. Here’s one example from the report: “After hearing mounting concerns about too much teaching to the test, Virginia lawmakers passed legislation to reduce the number of state tests from 22 to 17 in grades 3 through 8. ‘Overwhelmingly, we heard concerns that the ‘teaching to the test’ mentality was depriving students of the opportunity to derive substantive value from the material as opposed to memorizing factoids and regurgitating information without having synthesized it,’ said Mike Webert, a Virginia legislator. A state task force is considering further reductions.”
  8. 8. In Tennessee this week Secretary Duncan challenged the PTA to lead a debate about education during the 2016 Presidential campaign, but he did not speak specifically about the role of standardized tests, as reported by Education Week.

10 Responses to “So There’s A Moratorium. Now What?”

  1. Robert Schaeffer 11. Sep, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

    Great questions for local districts, John. FairTest would be pleased to help parents, teachers, students and community activists press for clear answers.

  2. Dale Campbell 11. Sep, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

    Support is building for teacher in test protect in Gainesville, Florida. An Alachua County kindergarten teacher is refusing to administer one of the state’s standardized tests because it takes away too much time from teaching and learning. The principal is sympathetic but this will require a change in state legislation. Parents and community members are being encouraged to contact their state representatives. Learning more in the front page headline news story from this mornings Gainesville Sun at http://www.gainesville.com/article/20140910/ARTICLES/140919939/1002/news01?Title=Support-is-building-for-teacher-in-testing-protest.

  3. W. James Popham 11. Sep, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    Some excellent suggestions, John, but I detect an important misunderstanding that seems to permeate your recommendations on this issue. You seem to assume that a standardized test is a standardized test is a standardized test. That assumption is untenable. The brand new Standards for Educational and Psychological testing were just published in July, and they stress the necessity of making validity evidence available to support every specific use of a test’s results. The authors of these influential standards know all too well that a test is not a test is not a test. The proposal you make is a constructive one, but if you lump all standardized tests together as though they emerged from the same womb, clear thinking vanishes.

    • John Merrow 11. Sep, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

      Thanks for this clarification, Jim. So, first let’s do the count. Then get specific and list all the tests and examine the justification for each, chucking those which are unnecessary, redundant or dilatory in providing results.
      You understand that I am not against testing or assessment, but when 8-year-olds are spending 7.5% of the school year taking these tests, something is very, very wrong.

      • W. James Popham 11. Sep, 2014 at 6:31 pm #

        Your “count them, then chuck the chuck-worthy” suggestion is constructive, John. Its potential danger, however, is that when we regard different tests as equivalent during the phase-one counting, this is almost certain to provide a misleading count. What about reversing the sequence? That is, dig into the per-test justifications first, dump the unworthy tests (of which there are many), and then do a post-winnowing count. Keep on top of this issue, John. It’s an important one.

      • Kathy 12. Sep, 2014 at 6:22 pm #

        When the length of tests for kids aged 5-11 is longer than the bar exam, something is very wrong. When 7-9 year olds must write essays on computers, something is very wrong, When volunteers are paying for school lunches in under-resourced communities http://www.npr.org/series/4516989/storycorps, something is very wrong. It’s not about good teaching or learning. What IS it about?

  4. Ed Lyell 11. Sep, 2014 at 6:52 pm #

    Since I was on the Colorado State Board of Education helping start state tests against higher standards I have hear the complaints about testing time. To me it is all bogus. In many other countries non teachers administer the tests. I had volunteers organized in Colorado to pass out, proctor, and collect the state tests. These included retired teachers, organizations of seniors, business people, etc.
    In addition to being able to not take up teacher teaching time we could make sure that teachers could not ever teach to test items, nor cheat.
    Yet local control in Colorado and America means that teachers, administrators and board members see the tests, test items, and distort the integrity of the process.
    Tests are organized to sample performance against broader standards. Yet our educational bureaucracy seems afraid of real accountability and keeps creating bogus barriers to any real testing and accountability.
    We can create and use a system with more credibility, less cost, and less loss of learning time if we do what the rest of the world does. Thus I have to assume that these other barriers are designed just to avoid accountability.

  5. Gisele Huff 11. Sep, 2014 at 7:37 pm #

    Up until now, our testing regimen has been “of learning,” summative tests at the end of the school year that are more like autopsies than useful diagnoses. What our children need, and what we can deliver with the help of technology, are tests “for learning” that offer students and teachers alike actionable information to improve performance. And in the course of time as we shift from the first to the second, tests will be “as learning” giving competency-based learners the ability to self-assess for deeper meaning, an absolute must in the 21st century world.

  6. Richard P. Phelps 14. Sep, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

    I looked at Eleanor Shute’s story in the Pittsburgh paper. Helpfully, she posted the district’s powerpoint presentation with details on the testing involved in the calculations. You seem to be assuming that all the tests are large-scale multiple-choice tests–mostly likely state or national tests. In fact, most are formative and diagnostic tests: “Checkpoint Quizzes” 16x a year. “Math Unit Assessment” 7x a year. “Reading Unit Assessment” 5x a year. “Formative Module Assessment” 12-15x a year. Are you opposed to those? Adding up the changes, it would appear that it is mostly those types of tests, and not the state & national multiple-choice tests, that Pittsburgh is cutting back on.

    You also seem to be assuming that every test, quiz, or inventory listed is administered for the entirety of each 45-minute period during which it is scheduled, and that each and every student takes each and every test. DIBELS is administered 3x a year in the Pittsburgh Schools. There are seven types of DIBELS tests, each takes less than 1 minute. Students who are not having any reading difficulty may take none at all.

    Richard P. Phelps

  7. Tess Brennan 16. Sep, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    The figure used by Lee County does NOT include the cost to pay teachers to proctor those exams. If you figure (60 hours per teacher per year)*(# teachers in the district)*(a first year teachers salary – lets be conservative) there is ANOTHER $6 MILLION – spent to administer these tests in a single district… $11.25 MILLION on just testing…

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