Letter: Costly tests, misleading results
Roaring Fork School Superintendent Diana Sirko recently wrote an editorial about the district’s position on standardized testing (“Reframing the testing conversation,” April 8, Commentary, The Aspen Times). This is an important topic for every taxpayer to understand — even if you do not have children enrolled in our local public schools, you still have a lot of skin in this game.
She reassured us that “less than 3 percent of instructional time” is used each year for standardized testing. That doesn’t sound like a lot, until you run the numbers. There are about 315 minutes of instructional time each day, and 3 percent of that equals 27 hours of bubbling in test answers. That 27 hours would be better used for reading, writing and math instruction (typically 180 minutes of a student’s school day). That’s nine core subject days lost each year to standardized tests and a whopping 72 days (almost half a school year) lost to test taking from third to 10th grade. Sirko did not mention the months of test prep that students are subjected to each year!
If you want an honest answer about that, ask your favorite teacher to explain the test-prep process to you.
Sirko asserts that “high quality instruction … is all the preparation that is needed” to do well on these tests. Not so. Students need to be drilled on how to be good test takers. Ask a math teacher how many hours they spend drilling children on how to write their test answers completely inside the test boxes (marks made outside the box lines earn demerits when they are scored). Crack open a test-prep workbook like teachers use, and you are likely to find chapters designed to create better test takers, with entries like “common test words that trick students.”
Some test questions are poorly written and lead to “wrong” answers because the question isn’t posed correctly. The new Common Core standards require children to not just answer math problems numerically, they must also write complex text answers as to how they arrived at the numerical answer. Kids who used to be considered good mathematicians are now getting math questions “wrong” because they are not good writers.
It’s crazy to make smart kids feel dumb about their math skills because their writing aptitude isn’t as advanced as their math knowledge. There are numerous examples of how test questions don’t really capture students’ proficiency. A few years ago, the essay prompt on the CSAP test asked Colorado middle-schoolers to imagine their experience on a space station. Basalt students raised their hands, wanting to know what a “space station” was (teachers are not allowed to clarify questions for students). Even if students were excellent writers, if they had no knowledge of that topic, they were destined to fail that part of the test.
Sirko says that the district has to be accountable to students and parents: “We want parents to clearly understand how their children are doing.” I think we can all agree with the goal of transparent information for parents, but standardized tests do not achieve this goal at all. The TCAP lumps all Colorado students into one big messy group (genius kids, average kids, students with learning disabilities, kids who don’t speak English proficiently, inner-city and rural kids, children from all socio-economic levels), then a test score tells you what your child achieved on the TCAP relative to that big hodgepodge of students. This is completely useless information for administrators, parents and students.
It’s appalling that so much money and time is spent on these tests. TCAP assigns a proficiency number to children, without providing any actionable information to parents and students. If the TCAP results actually came with helpful information like, “The test results show that your child needs more practice with multiplication tables,” parents and kids could act upon that news and work on mastering that particular skill. If a teacher were notified that a majority of her students was not proficient in decimal math, that teacher could seek out better ways to teach that topic more effectively. TCAP results provide none of this useful information. In fact, parents aren’t even allowed to look at their child’s test to extrapolate useful information. If you ask the Colorado Department of Education to send you a copy of your child’s test, as I did, you will get this answer: “Test items and booklets are considered secure materials and are not available for viewing.”
Colorado just adopted the new Common Core standards, which means we have to buy new curriculum and pay for new standardized tests. There are lots of samples online that illustrate the absurdity of high-stakes testing questions. These new standards and tests stray far from comprehensible, common-sense instruction. Just Google “common core math worksheets” or take a look at your child’s math homework. The state of New York paid testing giant Pearson $32 million for five years of standardized tests. In 2012, eighth graders read a story about a hare racing a talking pineapple. The pineapple stood still, the animals ate it, and the moral of the story was the baffling “pineapples have no sleeves,” leaving students scratching their heads about which answers to bubble in on their tests. Yep, those test scores are really meaningful indicators of your child’s academic aptitude!
What can you do to stop this nonsense? Tell your school principal that your child is opting out of all standardized testing next year (TCAP, PARCC, NWEA — there are numerous tests children are subjected to annually — and let real learning begin. Let’s spend our money on teacher salary raises instead of continuing to feed the expensive testing machine.