La. to look for ways to reduce testing

Photo Credit: MGN

Louisiana educators, state officials and the White House agree on something — our students are taking too many tests in schools.

President Barack Obama and the U.S. Department of Education are calling for a reduction in testing. Louisiana officials seem to agree with the sentiment, but not the declaration.

“I generally agree with what the president is trying to achieve,” Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White said. “But another federal dictate, mandate as the way to do it is wrong-headed. I think it’s fair to say we should streamline testing, but the idea that the federal government should come in and put a rule on the schools of Louisiana leads to all the crazy bureaucracy that comes with other federal mandates.”

Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said he would put his opinion bluntly.

“It’s about damn time,” he said, referring to the call to limit testing.

The question he asks is one many are asking — how much is too much?

“I think everybody knows where we are is too much,” Monaghan said. “What effect (this call) will have in Louisiana we’ll see after the election cycle, I do believe.”

Obama announced this reduction plan Oct. 24 through a video on the White House Facebook page. In it he said he has asked the U.S. Department of Education to work with states and school districts to make sure tests meet three basic principles.

  • “Our kids should only take tests that are worth taking — tests that are high-quality, aimed at good instruction and make sure everybody’s on track,” the president said.
  • “Tests shouldn’t occupy too much classroom time or crowd out teaching and learning. Tests should enhance teaching and learning.
  • Tests should be just one source of information used alongside classroom work and surveys and other factors to give us an all-around look at how our students and our schools are doing.”

The U.S. Department of Education also released an online fact sheet on its “testing action plan.” While it is not a mandate with enforcement power behind it, the federal government is to provide financial support, “expertise” and flexibility from federal mandates to help states reduce testing in schools, according to the action plan.

The Obama administration is going to work with states and school districts to make sure “we’re not obsessing about tests,” that these principles are reflected and that “our kids are enjoying learning,” the president said in his video.

“Learning is about so much more than just filling in the right bubble,” he said.

That’s an idea most parents, teachers and school officials are behind, as evidenced in state and national surveys. White said informal surveys across the Louisiana have returned “dozens and dozens” of responses saying testing has gotten out of hand.

“We don’t need the president or secretary telling us to do it, but we should do it,” White said.

A survey this month from the Council of the Great City Schools, which comprises 66 member districts that are large urban areas across the country, looked at spring 2014 assessment practices across its districts. The survey does not provide a complete picture for Louisiana, as New Orleans is the only member from this state, but its findings offer a broad glimpse at how much testing is taking place.

The survey found 401 unique tests were administered across subjects in the 66 member school systems in the 2014-15 academic year. Students in these districts were required to take an average of 112.3 tests from pre-K to 12th grade, a figure that does not include optional or diagnostic tests.

The average student in these member districts typically takes about eight standardized tests per year, according to the survey’s findings. Testing is more prevalent in third grade and above, but it is “common” in pre-K to second grade as well.

The survey also found no correlation between the amount of mandated testing time and the reading and math scores in fourth and eighth grades on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) for its member districts.

Standardized testing in Louisiana is for students in third to 11th grades. In Rapides Parish, students spent about 13 days taking standardized tests, said Arthur Joffrion, executive assistant superintendent.

High-schoolers perhaps shoulder the biggest burden of testing, as many take end-of-course tests not used in lower grades. They also have tests related to special courses like Advanced Placement or career and technical education classes as well as college entrance exams. Louisiana now requires all juniors to take the ACT.

“While all the exams have value, we question why they have to take all of them,” Joffrion said. “As a district, we’re in favor of reduced testing.”

This is an area that White hopes to see streamlined.

“There are two types of assessments in place that are testing the same things,” he said. “We need to get to one. I would propose that this year be the last year for us to have two.”

For example, a junior’s English knowledge is being measured by both the ACT and the end-of-course test for English III. Of the two, the more likely test to cut would be the EOC rather than the ACT, which is used in Louisiana and other states as a college entrance exam. But White said he would “need to have that discussion with superintendents.”

That discussion will be part of a meeting White is having with superintendents Thursday in Baton Rouge, he said. Other points to discuss are reducing the “testing window” on the state’s side and looking at where districts can limit their tests.

A testing window is the number of days within which students take the state standardized tests. That was increased to two weeks, but White proposes that be cut.

But the burden of change won’t be only on the state department. State-mandated testing takes up about 2 to 3 percent of the school year, White said.

“It’s not just a state question, but a state and district question,” he said. “It’s important then that states and districts be strategic together about how we are streamlining our testing … so that it is time well spent for children. I think it’s fair to say now we have not streamlined.”

So the question is what comes within the remaining 97 percent, when there’s no NCLB testing, no LEAP, just district testing, White said. District-level testing ranges from screening tests for giftedness or dyslexia to classroom quizzes and “benchmark” assessments.

He said many tests have been added over the years without deleting others, causing a problem of accumulation. Streamlining means looking at that accumulation to see what stays and what goes.

“Are these tests essential?” he asked. “Whether they’re teacher-made, school-made, district-made, vendor-made, no one has yet called to question. … We can play our part, but the districts have to do their part and that’s ask that question.”

He doesn’t expect this to be easy.

“Districts are going to make some hard decisions, and we want to help them make them,” he said.

Those hard decisions will come from wading through the “multiplicity of tests” that Joffrion said are in place in Rapides Parish.

“We need to find that one measurement that enhances student achieve and is continuous,” he said. A test in place for several years provides a better comparison than results from different tests year to year, for example.

Last spring Rapides Parish students spent two weeks taking the PARCC test and one week taking LEAP or iLEAP.

“That’s too much,” Joffrion said.

But White said he does not intend to mandate that districts “streamline” testing.

“It’s not about whether to mandate or be hands-off,” he said. “It’s about making sure districts have the tools they need to streamline their testing.”

Limiting testing is not removing all testing.

“I understand the need for testing,” said Cheryl Kitchings, coordinator of the gifted and talented program for Bossier Parish schools. “You have to determine whether the students understand what they’re being taught and if they are learning.”

White emphasized the importance of having some testing rather than throwing everything out.

“Every parent and child deserves an annual checkup on how they are doing,” White said. “… It verifies that kids are ready to go to the next level (whether the next grade, college or a job). Universities and employers need verification that they are ready to move on into their ranks.”

And he advocates for some benchmark assessments rather than only relying on one end-of-the-year test.

“They do need to do a more regular checkup on kids than every May, but they need to do some streamlining,” he said.

Kitchings likes the idea of more classroom time on spent teaching rather that teaching students to take a test, but said that might not rely only on the state.

“I feel like the best way to do that is if tests are tied closely to the standards being taught in the classroom,” she said. “If so, you shouldn’t need time to prepare them to take a test, but it should come naturally.”

That might mean a change in how tests are formatted, whether teacher-made or publisher-made tests, ensuring that they reflect what is being taught.

For example, Kitchings said, her daughter was taught early on to write in complete sentences before ever hearing about a test where she would be expected to do so.

With less time spent on preparing for and administering tests, superintendents expect to see less stress on their faculty.

“Teachers and students feel overwhelmed with all of the required tests that they are required to give,” Ouachita Parish schools Superintendent Don Coker said in an email. “Not only are there designated test weeks in the spring, but we are pre-testing students so teachers can set Student Learning Targets at the beginning of the year, testing at mid-year (progress monitoring) to see if students are growing based on the teacher’s SLTs, and testing at the end of the year to determine student growth and how the teacher ranked on their end of year evaluation. I do think that the reduction in testing will allow more teaching time, which should benefit our students.

Joffrion agrees. He is excited to see an effort to give teachers more time to spend on high-quality instruction that better prepares students, he said. The Rapides district has spent a considerable amount of money on professional development to improve instruction.

“Most of our professional development is centered around instructional practices,” Joffrion said. “This provides us more time to put that into practice.”

He and other district officials want Rapides Parish teachers to spend time on formative assessments that inform their teaching as they go rather than summative tests that show how a student did at the end of the year. He said those are less helpful to inform instruction as they receive data after the school year.

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