We scored a big victory in Pittsburgh last night! The school district and school board agreed to substantially reduce testing for students in grades K-5. The biggest winners are children in grades 3-5, where testing will be cut from 85.5 periods a year to 41.5 periods. At 45 minutes per period, that is 1,980 minutes of instructional time – or 33 hours of real learning time – that our children just got back in their lives.
Thirty-three hours! And that’s just in test-taking. When tests are eliminated, students also gain back time that had been dedicated to test-prep, so there is a multiplier effect here, too.
School board member Sherry Hazuda looked at those numbers and said, “No wonder people are complaining when you see it like that.” [Post-Gazette, 9-9-14] Indeed. We certainly have been complaining. We’ve also been meeting with the district, legislators, and other decision makers to provide evidence of the negative impacts of high-stakes testing. [See “High Stakes for Students”] Last night, board member Carolyn Klug pointed out one of those impacts, explaining that with these testing cuts students will not only have more time to learn, “it will reduce stress as well.” [Post-Gazette, 9-9-14]
The specific testing cuts include the elimination of the TerraNova and some Curriculum Based Assessments (CBAs). In its presentation to the board, the district noted that the relatively new CDT tests would continue, but the scheduled is marked as “negotiable.” Some teachers have told me the CDTs provide some useful information, while others (including principals) have shared they do not find them helpful at all. Either way, the CDTs are computer hogs: they are given on-line, meaning the entire computer lab is not available for weeks on end throughout the school year during the various testing windows. This is particularly problematic with increased class sizes: at my children’s school, many classes far exceed the number of working computers in the computer lab.
The district also plans to continue the GRADE assessment. I wrote about this particular test last fall when a Pittsburgh teacher shared her experience giving the test to her struggling students. The teacher felt she was being forced to practically abuse these children with a poorly designed test (purposefully created this way to fail a set percentage of test takers to “norm” the results into a nice bell curve) and that it undermined the learning community they had worked so hard to build together. That post went viral and was published by the Washington Post. [See “Testing Madness”]
So there is still room for improvement, but this is a fantastic start. Allison McCarthy, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, told the school board that they are also planning to reduce testing for students in grades 6-12. I applaud Pittsburgh for taking this important first step.
And we are not alone. The school board in Florida’s Lee County recently voted to opt the entire school district out of that state’s high-stakes tests! [Washington Post, 8-28-14] Immediately following that vote, Palm Beach County school board starting discussing doing the same thing. [Sun Sentinel, 8-29-14] There is growing recognition around the country that high-stakes testing is hurting children, negatively affecting their learning, and narrowing their curriculum.
What’s more, research is stacking up against the use of student test scores to measure teachers and entire schools (which is one of the major reasons we’ve seen an explosion in the number of tests each year). For instance, the American Statistical Association (ASA) released a report this spring strongly warning about the limitations of using student data to evaluate teachers through Value Added Modeling (VAM). The ASA concluded: “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores” and that “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” The statistical researchers concluded, “This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.” [American Statistical Association, 4-8-14]
So while I am enormously encouraged by Pittsburgh’s efforts to reduce the overall number of tests, we still have a ways to go to tackle the full consequences of high-stakes testing on our kids. Still – 33 hours restored to teaching and learning! Hurray!