Sunday, January 18, 2015

Standardized testing, accountability, and student growth

As the Colorado legislature prepares to deal with standardized testing, questions arise surrounding the purpose of testing and its role in holding teachers, schools, and districts accountable.  This Sunday, the Denver Post editorial board presented their take on proposals that would reduce standardized testing:
Clearly, there are ways to slim down the testing volume for students, and such a task becomes less contentious and complex if those involved can agree on basic goals. 
One key goal should be the preservation of what is known as Colorado's growth model in assessing academic achievement. By measuring academic growth over time in addition to overall proficiency, the state can determine whether a district or school is moving students along as fast as their peers elsewhere in the state. 
It's a key measurement when it comes to questions of educational equity for low socio-economic students, and in measuring the relative success of schools in difficult environments. 
And while no one is talking about abolishing such a system — at least not publicly — that is what would happen if the state does not require a reasonable continuum of tests that can chart student progress over time.

Preserving Colorado's "Colorado's growth model in assessing academic achievement," sounds like an admirable goal, but as students who have supposedly been a part of this system, we question the idea that Colorado's current standardized testing system effectively monitors student growth.

Under the CSAP and TCAP testing system, students were monitored once per year, usually in March, in Reading, Writing, and Math.  Students also took science tests in 5th, 8th, and 10th grades.  Under the new PARCC system, students are tested in grades 3-11, with additional social studies and science tests in certain grades.  Furthermore, whereas students were previously tested solely in March, the PARCC tests occur in two separate segments, in March and in May. Proponents argue that this system ensures accountability: if students are tested every year, then the state should be able to track their progress. But we see several problems:

1) The standardized testing system doesn't provide feedback quickly enough for students, parents, or teachers. While school and district tests often provide immediate feedback, state-level testing does not. Students take standardized tests in March or May; schools don't receive the feedback until the next fall.  This gap makes it more difficult for schools and districts to utilize standardized testing.

2) Testing once per year doesn't measure progress in a manner which accounts for the income achievement gap.   Studies have repeatedly shown that the"achievement gap" that occurs as a result of socioeconomic differences is most pronounced over the summer. Consequently, a test designed to account for this gap would require testing students at the beginning and the end of the year.

3) The current standardized testing system doesn't always align with Colorado's curriculum. The high school CMAS science tests, for example, were aimed at 12th graders, but, per student testimony, required knowledge of physical and earth science, which are not  mandated high school courses.  This makes it difficult for schools to tell if students have fallen behind, or if they simply don't remember information from classes they haven't taken in years. 

4) The testing system takes too much time.  The PARCC testing requires students to take multiple math and English tests in both March and May; schools have to devote several weeks to administering these tests.  Are five English tests really better than one? From a student perspective, the answer is definitely no.

With so much focus on keeping teachers and schools accountable, we should make sure that Colorado's standardized tests are held accountable too.  And when the standardized system fails to account for "key goals," like measuring student growth, the state of Colorado owes it to the students to re-evaluate.  We hope this time they will.

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