Sunday, December 11, 2011
Is Instruction Interfering With High Stakes Testing?
Students across New York State will sit longer for high-stakes standardized tests in language arts and math this April compared with past years, education officials indicated Friday, drawing criticism from school leaders and parents who believe that lengthier tests are a move in the wrong direction.
A week after David Abrams, the state’s longtime testing director, was forced to resign after he sent an unauthorized memorandum about lengthening testing to school districts, officials declined to specify how much time they planned to add. Mr. Abrams’s memo said the tests would grow to more than four hours — over several days — for reading, from about two-and-a-half hours now, and to three hours or more for math, from an average of two hours now.
Top officials disavowed the memo and said the increases would not be so drastic. They said Friday that they would send the new times and other details to districts next week.
The annual tests, given to students in grades 3 through 8, will factor into teacher evaluations for the first time this year. Extending test times, state officials said, would enable them to field-test new questions that would not count toward a student’s score but could be used to develop future tests.
Currently, new questions are tested in practice exams given in selected districts. That has raised the concern that students, knowing the tests do not count, do not try very hard, resulting in misleading data. Such inaccurate feedback, these officials say, has contributed to the state’s score inflation in recent years.
The Board of Regents discussed including sample multiple-choice questions in the actual tests at a meeting in December 2010, and the State Education Department issued a memo in March notifying districts that the change would take effect next spring.
But some school administrators and parents say it was not clear from the memo that a result would be longer tests.
Critics assert that more time spent on testing cuts into time for classroom instruction. They also say that lengthier tests penalize younger children who cannot concentrate for long periods, giving an inaccurate assessment of their abilities.
“I think the last thing we want is a test of stamina,” said Richard Organisciak, superintendent of the 11,000-student New Rochelle district in Westchester County. “The thought of a third grader sitting there for three hours — it boggles my mind that he would stay as focused or perform as well on a high-stakes test.”
The stakes are particularly high in New York City, where a top score can help a student gain admission to some of the city’s most coveted middle schools.
Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, the union representing 218,000 public school teachers, said the state should be trying to decrease testing time, not increase it.
“If it becomes a burden on the student and teacher and it takes away from instructional time, then we’ve missed the point altogether,” he said. “We’ve moved away from an instrument that measures and improves student growth, and gotten wound up in the concept of how much data we can collect.”
Nationwide, most states already blend field questions into actual exams taken by students because doing so provides more reliable data about questions, said Brian Gong, executive director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, a nonprofit group that provides support to state education departments. “That’s a very common practice; the SAT also does it,” he said. “It’s the best way to get real data.”
New York’s tests are shorter than those given in some other states: third graders take a 150-minute test in language arts, and a 100-minute test in math, compared with 150-minute to 270-minute tests in other states, with sample questions typically accounting for 10 to 20 minutes, Mr. Gong said. “There are many people asking tests to do more things,” he added, “which technically requires the test to be longer.”
Kathleen M. Cashin, a Fordham University education professor who joined New York’s Regents in March, said there should have been more discussion in the state about increasing test times.
“I think we have too much testing now,” she said. “I mean, is the purpose of education just to identify weaknesses through accountability measures? Or is the purpose to expand the child’s learning with knowledge and vocabulary, and give them the opportunity to discuss and think at a higher level?”
Lisa Siegman, principal of Public School 3 in Greenwich Village, said she would like to see evidence that increasing the length of state tests would help schools like hers to better educate their students. “They’re trying to measure something,” she said, “but I’m not quite sure it connects to what we do.”