By Rachel Rich
This December, along with colleagues from Washington State to New Mexico, I flew to Washington, DC to present a report to the NEA summarizing the passions and concerns of over 900 teachers. Our writing collaborative was granted an opportunity as rare as a perfect SAT score—a chance to speak with the NEA’s Vice President, Board, and Accountability Task Force. Our project stemmed from a joint NEA and VIVA Idea Exchange website that allowed teachers to discuss “360 Degree Accountability”. One focus of the debate was the term “accountability”, which unfortunately often implies that teachers bear sole responsibility for student success and that the only way to achieve such success is through standardized testing, testing, and more testing.
In spite of this, I expected the 900 contributors to mostly share their philosophies, best lesson plans that support tests, or even praise for the glitzy computerization of tests, probably sprinkled with a few gripes. I was wrong. The VIVA/NEA sounding board reverberated with endless outcries against the standardized tests de jour. Too long. Exhausting. Demoralizing. More a test of computer skills than knowledge. Putting instructional focus solely on teaching to the test. Shortening instructional time. Disruptive. Taking over the whole school from March to May. Not what they hoped for. Uninformative. And way too expensive.
Charged with the mission of summarizing these (and unrelated) views, I decided I had better inform myself about the terminology and technology of current assessments, as well as their implications. I also shared a vested interest in observing the outcome of educational reform, since before retirement I served on several committees for the Oregon Department of Education to draft standards and a common curriculum underlying such tests. These benchmark standards were then incorporated into House Bill 3565, Oregon’s Education Reform Act.
Rather than just jump on a bandwagon with other educators with their minds already set pro or con, I decided to first hunt down the facts myself, as found in the testing industry’s own manuals. My focus is specifically on Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests used in my home state of Oregon, because I can consult with local teachers for clarification. SBAC is now used by over 20 states, although many other states employ the similar PARCC.
Like winter wool on bare skin, these questions began to prickle: What are the logistical issues for schoolwide tests taken at a computer? How much time do they consume? How expensive are they—including fees, technology, and administration? Do SBAC results detail each student’s strengths and weaknesses or merely summarize the progress of a whole class or school? Are results prompt, allowing teachers to tailor instruction throughout the year, or do they merely give schools a thumbs-up or thumbs-down at year’s end—an autopsy, if you will? Are scores fair and consistent between students, schools, and states? Do these tests guide or rule instruction? Besides improving learning, do these tests serve other purposes? And most important of all, do they actually raise student scores?
Scrolling through SBAC’s online guides and other primary sources, I uncovered some strange answers and equally peculiar implications. This blog invites you to share your own testing experiences and especially your solutions to any problems. How should the goals, parameters, and outcomes look? How would you fix or replace today’s version of standardized tests?
But first, let the SBAC literature speak for itself:
Test length according to Smarter Balanced Online Field Test Administration Manual, p. 34
For the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests, the youngest students test for seven hours, while the eldest sit at a computer for eight-and-a-half hours. The literature admits students actually need much more time, probably 10 ½ hours for high school students. Here is the SBAC minimum timetable from p. 34 of the manual:
Grades 3-5: SEVEN HOURS
Grades 6-8: SEVEN-AND-ONE-HALF HOURS
High School: EIGHT-AND-ONE-HALF HOURS
Fortunately, SBAC allows students to take breaks and spread tests over days or even weeks. But to complicate things, it’s impossible to administer tests only within the relevant class period, given the time it takes to log each student into his or her computer and then conduct the required instructions and warmups. Consequently, blocks of 90-120 minutes are recommended, although breaks cannot be longer than 20 minutes without shutting down the program. These scheduling factors are a real headache for administrators. Likewise, lengthy tests pull both students and teachers out of their other classes, burdening both with make-up work.
Clearly, this SBAC timetable shouts out why so many students and teachers, not to mention administrators, label these assessments lengthy, stressful, and exhausting. By comparison, college exams are only three hours, the SAT is three and three quarters, and our military’s ASVAB is only two and a half! We have to ask, how is it that the SAT manages to test a senior in less than half the time it takes for SBAC to assess a third-grader? Who knew I would stumble across such revealing manuals? I merely intended to research the acronyms and dense terminology swirling around standardized tests like a dust cloud. But once penetrated, the online SBAC guides reveal a method of “accountability” that is both inefficient and extreme.
Rachel Rich taught middle and high school English and Foreign Language for 21 years, while leading the longest running international student exchange program between them. An early advocate of educational reform, she worked on several committees for the Oregon Department of Education to pass House Bill 3565 (The Oregon Educational Reform Act), and helped draft Oregon’s Certificate of Initial Mastery and Certificate of Advanced Mastery. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange.