Monday, March 14, 2011

Testing 1,2,3. . .

The month of March means more than the start of training for spring sports and plans for the prom for public schools in the US. It also marks the season of standardized testing - an enormously important event for school district administrators. Under the terms of the federal No Child Left Behind act, states must set measurable goals for all public school students and then assess those students, in order to receive federal funding.

A short Raining Acorns blog piece is no place to debate NCLB, teacher accountability, public school funding or even the desirability or effectiveness of standardized tests. The fact is, these tests are mandated for now, and all I can do is give the reader a picture of what that means for an average middle or high school student in a typical United States school.

Today is the first day of PSSA testing - the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, in my state. Other states have similar tests created by their departments of education. Pennsylvania schools have a strictly enforced schedule for the next 4 weeks, during which most students in grades 3 and up will take math and reading tests, while 8th and 11th grade children will also be tested on writing and science. The Commonwealth sets out the specific information regarding the taking of these tests in a 60 page handbook which can be downloaded in PDF form.

So, this week, our middle school students will have PSSA testing for the first two hours of each day. The rest of the day will have abbreviated classes in order to fit in a full schedule. This means classes will be about 20 minutes instead of 40. The next week is reserved for make up exams for children who were sick - this requires teachers to act as proctors, so often substitutes are needed. The next week the 8th grade only will be tested for the first two hours; they will then miss two or three periods every day for the rest of the week.

The high school testing is even more disruptive to the schedule. The 11th grade is subjected to 12 days of testing in math, reading, writing and science. However, the 9th, 10th, and 12th grades are affected by this for a couple of reasons. First, teachers are needed to proctor the 2 hour exams, so they are not available for teaching the other grades. Second, many classes have multiple grades in them, so no classes which contain juniors can be taught, because some of the class would miss it due to scheduling. Logistically, it is impossible to hold meaningful class time with the other three-quarters of the school during the testing window.

So the guidance department has to create relevant, appropriate assemblies for the rest of the school. While the juniors are in testing mode, the rest of the school will have a presentation on the dangers of drinking and driving, a preview of the spring musical (minus the junior cast members!), and a presentation on the college search process, among other things. And the 10th grade will also have its own tests - the 4Sight Benchmark assessments, which are designed to predict how students will do next year on the PSSAs, so the school can identify early on students who will need extra help to pass the PSSA.

The only upside to these three weeks for most students is, they have very little homework at night, since there is not time in the abbreviated class periods to teach anything truly significant. It does make sense to have some sort of yardstick or benchmark to ensure our students master basic math and verbal skills. But it often feels like the brighter students are held back, in order to make sure they keep familiar with the concepts to be measured on the PSSAs while the struggling students are overwhelmed with test taking practice and review. The vast majority of kids, somewhere in the middle, are all being taught to achieve uniform middle-ground results. Our children can write nice 5 paragraph essays on PSSA "prompts" which is not a bad skill to have. But all the essays seem to be structured the same way and use the same conventions.

I suppose I have veered into debate territory here. Instead listening to me, I'll let the reader have a listen to the late, great Harry Chapin. This performance of "Flowers Are Red" illustrates the slippery slope of grading to one standard:

Curious to see if you can pass a standardized test? Check out the 7th grade reading sample:

7th Grade reading

And here is the 11th grade math:

11th grade math


  1. What a palaver! Pleased to find I can still read but the maths is a tiny bit rusty, it's always been a language I can almost read.

  2. You brilliantly recount the facts, let them speak for themselves, and they are damning. The Chapin tune provides the perfect summing up. This is a must read for anyone who cares about education (which needs to be all of us). Such a shame we've fallen so deeply into this testing trap.

  3. Dear Wide Open Spaces,
    thank you for that insight into your education system. It is so difficult how to make choices - as you say "the slippery slope of grading to one standard" - sorry that in every system somebody is left out.

  4. I come away from reading this very insightful post with decidedly mixed feelings. The process seems to be robotically regimented, almost as if it was designed to squeeze out any hint of originality. The Harry Chapin clip perfectly sums that up. On the other hand, after looking at the sample reading and math quizzes, I can't help but be impressed by the complexity and sophistication the questions demand of the test-taker. Perhaps that's a reflection of the deficiencies in my own education. All in all, it is a very worthwhile and thought-provoking post. Thank you, Wide Open Spaces.

  5. What I loved about this post is the straightforward way in which you lay out the devastating impact this test disruption has on learning and student lives.

    Do you know of this Pennsylvania group? It's part of the "Race to Nowhere": End the Race campaign:

  6. Thanks for laying out these puzzling facts so clearly. As Von said "what a palaver!" The education system has always puzzled me. For instance, I come from a land of year-round school and I cannot understand how taking the whole summer off can be useful to a child's academic progress - perhaps the school year could be lengthened to accommodate these tests...


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