Data is necessary to provide assessment outcomes but data can only assess what it sets out to evaluate. There are many instances when data cannot capture the nuances and subtle effects that occur during the assessment itself.
A great example of this is what is affectionately referred to as the current “testing season” in Florida public schools. Not to be confused with other Florida seasons, such as hurricane season or tourist season, standardized testing has indeed evolved from a few days into an entire season of testing — weeks and weeks of testing. Running from March to May, many question the growing impact all this testing has on learning —the very learning being evaluated by the tests that all but supplant it.
Years before, when paper based standardized tests prevailed, tests were administered over the course of a week. It was arduous and unpleasant —teachers lost days of teaching time and students were grilled for several hours. But it was over and teaching and learning resumed.
IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY ON TESTING
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Then Florida State Assessment (FSA) entered the picture along with technology. Technology has made it possible to administer these standardized tests via computer, which has many positive aspects like paper and transportation cost reductions, as well as enhanced security issues and ease of scoring. As such the majority of testing today is now computer based. Benjamin Herold reaffirms this in his Edweek article Online Testing Now More Common Than Paper and Pencil, Study Finds. He discusses online testing with Doug Levin, author of Pencils Down: The Shift to Online & Computer-Based Testing. Levin says that there are obvious advantages of computer based testing (CBT) over paper based testing (PBT). These include a better assessment what students understand and how they perform; better accessibility for students with special needs; more efficient administration and scoring; improved security (less chance for cheating) and increased student motivation and engagement. However, he also cites the vulnerabilities that have arisen with CBT — such as software glitches and test disruptions, internet load related difficulties, and a less than effective help hot line — all encountered during the 2015 testing season. And of course the other fallouts of CBT that no one cares to explore, nor discuss — the state of the infrastructure in each school and the inordinate amount of time that staged CBT takes away from teaching.
Since March, Florida schools have been in the throes of testing — most of which is CBT. In and of itself, CBT would appear more seamless but in acquiring efficacy, we have insidiously, created a testing season and current CBT is not without flaws. From an application standpoint, CBT takes time to initiate. Unlike PBT where students can begin testing immediately after instructions have been read, CBT requires that all students be online and signed into the testing site before beginning. Last year logging in and accessing the test site took hours — this year has been better but delays varied from room to room and school site to school site. Glitches still occurred - in earlier tests this year students noted a lag time between when a letter was typed on the keyboard and when it showed up on the screen. Some students were booted off during their test and had to reacquire the test site before resuming the test.
THE DARKER SIDE
There are other impacts of CBT that data does not capture. CBT limits the number of students who can be tested (due to number of available computers, band width limitations, etc.) at any one time. This technologic log jam creates scenarios where one grade tests for language arts over two days, then another grade and another grade — then this repeats for math. Science exams are still paper based and continue to impact only grades 5 and 8.
Not only has this practice transformed the taking of a 2 standardized tests (language arts and math) into weeks of testing, other grades or subject areas that are not testing may sit idle for hours — in what is referred to as extended homeroom to provide a quiet and secure testing environment. Normal schedules are upended and classrooms become holding tanks. Special area courses like PE, art and music are cancelled and after a week or so, the strain of the upheaval is palpable in both student and teachers.
Few parents grasp the depth, breadth and impact of statewide testing that runs from March through May. Testing and learning are inversely proportional so the more testing that goes on in a public school day, the harder it is to provide an enriching and engaging classroom. After sitting for one or two 80 minute test sessions, few students are in a receptive learning state when they are done. The protracted testing period is so serious, moratoriums are placed on field trips and professional development activities.
In their Sun Sentinel article, Florida testing season begins, with hope for problem-free exams, Leslie Postal and Brittany Shammas said that Florida’s testing problems with the 2015 test prompted the Florida Legislature to pass a new testing law demanding a “validity study” of the FSA before scores could be released. The study — released last September, referred to the 2015 FSA administration “problematic … on just about every aspect of the computer-based test administrations.”
WHAT DO STUDENTS THINK?
In her Orlando Sentinel article, Majority of Florida students prefer computer tests over paper ones, Leslie Postal shares that Florida introduced CBT in 2011 and aims to offer most of its standardized tests online by 2018. From the students’ standpoint, not all students like CBT. About 45 percent thought CBT was easier while 25% preferred paper based tests (PBT) and 30percent were undecided.
The development, administration, scoring and reporting of these statewide assessments are run by two different assessment vendors — depending on the assessment.
American Institutes for Research (AIR), which has a $220 million, six year contract with Florida, administers the computer based Florida Standards Assessment (which aligns to the Florida Standards) and includes the English Language Arts (ELA) assessment and the Mathematics assessment. They also administer End of Course (EOC) exams for specific curriculums like geometry, algebra 1 and algebra 2.
To get an idea of how entrenched and far reaching these tests are, below is the foundation that creates the season of testing:
▪ Grade 3 FSA English Language Arts Reading Component (paper-based)
▪ Grades 4–10 FSA ELA Reading Component
▪ Grades 4–7 FSA ELA Writing Component (paper-based)
▪ Grades 8–10 FSA ELA Writing Component
▪ Grades 3–4 FSA Mathematics (paper-based)
▪ Grades 5–8 FSA Mathematics
▪ Algebra 1 FSA End-of-Course (EOC)
▪ Geometry FSA EOC
▪ Algebra 2 FSA EOC
Pearson administers the assessments aligned to the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards (NGSSS). These include
▪ Grades 5 and 8 Statewide Science Assessment/FCAT (paper-based)
▪ Biology 1 EOC Assessment
▪ U.S. History EOC Assessment
▪ Civics EOC Assessment
IS THERE AN ANSWER?
Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss, in her article Mom: Why my kids won’t be taking the new Florida Standards Assessment test, shares the sentiments of parents when it comes to testing. Opting out in an option for some parents. Opting out essentially means a student sits for the test — signs on or breaks the seal, and then ends the test. This results in an NR2 which indicates insufficient data for scoring. While opting out a child from testing is a parental decision, it doesn’t solve the inherent problems for the majority of those who do test.
While arguments continue to swirl about the validity of the test as an assessment tool, until we come up with a better tool, standardized testing it is the only one we have. We must figure out a way to test our students without robbing them of their education — each year. In middle school alone, students lose an average of four weeks a year — for three years. When you add that up, a middle school student could potentially lose up to three months of learning. They can’t afford that — we can’t afford that.
Not only are the weeks of test prep arduous and regimented, the test itself is too long. For elementary and middle school students, the typical tests run 60 -80 minutes each — in two to three parts. So for each subject, that could mean 120 to 180 minutes of testing. Compare that to the LSAT or the MCAT which are approximately five hours to get into law /medical school.
The final, familiar question that teachers and parents still ask is what are the true benefits of sacrificing learning for such a prolonged testing period? It is well known that the scores come back so late in the year, there is not much a teacher can do to reflect or remediate. In fact sometimes the scores come back months after the following school year has begun. How valid and how relevant are 6-month-old scores?
And all the money being spent on these big test makers and test administrators? Can you imagine what education would look like if $220 million was funneled back into the classroom? Into teacher retention and salaries?
Whatever the future holds, I just hope we come to the realization that kids don’t get smarter by testing — they get smarter by learning. Meaningful testing has its place, but it has been allowed to supersede that which it was meant to shadow.