HALL MONITOR — Still too much testing

February 28, 2017

By Jay Bullock

It’s that time of year again, when all over the nation, teachers look out at their students and think, “Yippee! It’s standardized test time!”

As if. I don’t know a single teacher anywhere whose idea of a productive school day is watching, hawk-like, over students as they bubble in answers with the much-beloved Number Two Pencil or, more and more these days, peck out answers on a Chromebook keyboard. We would much rather be, you know, teaching.

Last month, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors got a report on how much testing happens in MPS schools — a sprawling chart of how many standardized tests are given, to how many students, and for what quantity of total time.

Not counting Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams, MPS students take nine different standardized tests between September and May. There is hardly a date on the MPS calendar that isn’t in one testing window or another.

This is too much. MPS pleads that these tests are the result of federal or state mandates, but not all are, and the ones that are don’t have to be so taxing.

Eighth- and tenth-graders have it the worst, spending, respectively, 14.3 hours and 13.6 hours per school year taking some kind of standardized test. Coming in a close third are, surprisingly, fourth graders, who also spend more than 13 hours a year taking tests.

Even kindergarten students take five hours of standardized tests a year. Seriously. Kindergarten.

This may not seem like a lot; those of you who aced your math ACT have already figured out that even the highest figures represent only about two school days of testing. True! However, standardized testing doesn’t happen for two days in a row.

Rather, testing is spread out over the school year, creating not two consecutive days of lost instructional time, but repeated disruptions that ripple through classes and entire schools.

For example, on February 28 this year, every eleventh-grade student in the state took the ACT, which is now the state’s accountability test for high schools. In MPS, that meant not just five hours of testing for juniors, but a lost day of school for all the other high school students, who stayed home that day.

It also meant hours of registration time, as guidance counselors walked every junior through bubbling in their names and other information on answer sheets, time that students were out of class and counselors weren’t counseling.

As always, teachers felt pressure to do ACT prep as test day approached. I know I sure did. It took needed time away from subject matter. And since last year, high schools are under a directive to convert as many classroom assessments as possible to the ACT Writing test format: a timed, 40-minute argument writing task. For many of us, that has meant twisting and contorting what formerly were engaging, authentic assessments and projects, into a form devoid of any pleasure or creativity. Because of ACT.

None of that was represented in the chart the board saw last month, nor were the corresponding curriculum corruptions that affected every grade level and that were caused by testing. Also absent was data that represented repeated testing of students in various academic intervention classes, where those students can take the same test 15, 20, or more times in a year. That’s enough to beat the spirit out of any student.

The report was in part spurred by changes to federal guidelines under the Obama administration, which in its last couple of years came around to the idea that testing is not necessarily the best, and should never be, the only measure of student, teacher, school, or district achievement. Obama’s Department of Education launched a plan in 2015 to reduce time spent on tests — genuinely good news.

But who knows where that initiative goes now under President Trump and his public-school-hating Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. DeVos has long supported groups like the American Federation for Children, who count on test data to argue for the expansion of school vouchers and the disruption of public education as a whole.

The board committee receiving the report spent, if you can believe this, 10 whole minutes on this critical issue. Most of that time involved the district’s director of assessment explaining how there will be a more detailed report of MPS testing practices later. Only one member of the public spoke.

Even normally garrulous Director Terry Falk, who requested this study of standardized testing in MPS, had very little to say on the matter. “I’m not getting the phone calls on testing that I would have gotten a year ago,” he said. Teacher complaints about time spent testing, he said, is a “residual reaction” to the slightly greater number of hours of testing students spent a couple of years ago.

Okay, okay, I will admit this: The testing report was the final item on the agenda of a long night that included heated discussions of things like closing schools and mandating school uniforms. I can appreciate that board members entering their sixth hour of meetings in an evening can start to lose attention and concentration. It’s almost as if being trapped for hours doing a repetitive, restrictive task can be bad for you…

I feel like there’s a lesson in that, somewhere.

Jay Bullock teaches English and proctors standardized tests at Bay View High School and tweets as @folkbum. 

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