Testing is at a crossroads as schools take state exams

Denairian Johnson, a language arts teacher at Eastgate Middle School, moves freely around her classroom to answer questions and give specific instruction to individual students. She helped seventh-grader Brayan Rocha during a recent session at the school.
Denairian Johnson, a language arts teacher at Eastgate Middle School, moves freely around her classroom to answer questions and give specific instruction to individual students. She helped seventh-grader Brayan Rocha during a recent session at the school. The Kansas City Star

Thirteen-year-old Kolten Michalek had enough on his mind just securing his own confidence for the looming state language arts test.

He had no idea of the gale-force test anxiety swirling outside his classroom in North Kansas City’s Eastgate Middle School:

▪ Congress is trying to break through an eight-year ideological scrum over the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

▪ Missouri lawmakers are debating funding critical to most of the state’s current testing setup, which is caught in anti-Common Core state standards backlash.

▪ Battles persist over federal influence, local control and equity for poor and minority students.

▪ And activist parent groups in many states are joining “opt out” movements and pulling their children out of standardized tests.

Passionate debate over the future of standardized testing is rolling to a critical crossroads, says Mike Lodewegen of the Missouri Council of School Administrators.

The chances are there to strike vital new accords, he said, “or run public education into the ground.”

“We could lose the entire system,” he said. “That’s what’s at stake.”

At Eastgate, meanwhile, principal Chris McCann was taking steps recently to ensure that his school’s tech infrastructure can handle Missouri’s new, all-computerized tests this spring.

And seventh-grade language arts teacher Denairian Johnson was tending to her students’ confidence, reassuring herself by “doing what I can” and putting aside “the things I can’t control.”

Kolten, dragging his finger around the touch pad of his school-issued laptop in test practice, just wanted to know he can do well on his one crack at this year’s seventh-grade test.

“I feel a little stress,” he said.

Grassroots efforts

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing — or FairTest — has been watching America’s assessment habits for three decades, said its public education director, Bob Schaeffer.

“And never,” he said, “have I seen this level of grassroots assessment reform activism.”

Missouri finds itself in a particularly vexing situation.

It was one of 45 states, including Kansas, to adopt the now-controversial Common Core state standards, a broad effort to establish agreed-upon learning targets by grade level in math and language arts.

New standards required new tests to measure how students were doing reaching those standards.

Many states joined forces — Missouri joined the Smarter Balanced consortium — to pool resources in the complicated and expensive process of designing tests.

But ideological battles over Common Core led to a compromise a year ago, and now appointed work groups are reviewing and rewriting Missouri’s version of the standards.

Missouri has since lost its membership in the Smarter Balanced consortium.

The state this spring is carrying on with the Smarter Balanced tests that some of its teachers helped design for math and language arts in grades three through eight.

But lawmakers are debating whether the state will budget the licensing fees to bring the tests back next spring.

Without the fees, the state would have to take bids for a new test in 2016. And depending on what changes come in Missouri’s new standards, the state might need to contract for new assessments again in 2017.

That could mean four tests in four years.

“Our schools want some stability,” said Stacey Preis, Missouri’s deputy education commissioner for learning services. “We don’t want to keep switching gears on them.”

Kansas finds itself at a moment of relative calm with standards and testing in place — though a scheduled standards review in two years could reignite battles if more lasting accords aren’t reached.

At the national level, assessment’s heavy role in debates over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act is helping fuel growing sentiment against standardized testing.

Groups like FairTest are championing the opt-out movement — not widely felt in Missouri or Kansas, but spreading strongly in several states as near as Illinois.

“Civil disobedience is forcing change,” Schaeffer said.

But other groups like the Education Trust are crying warnings against any effort to drop federal requirements for annual testing — particularly requirements that states report the subgroup performance of minorities, special education students and economically disadvantaged students.

While the amount of testing may raise legitimate concerns, said the Education Trust’s Daria Hall, “we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Common ground?

Consider this whole testing struggle an opportunity, says North Kansas City Superintendent Todd White.

He sees the angry concerns of the “opt out” crowds in one direction and the staunch defenders of testing accountability in the other.

“I do think,” he says, “there are lines of thread that can connect them.”

Right now, too much emphasis is placed on the end-of-the-year test that scores students on the sum of their learning, he said.

Schools meanwhile roll out formative tests throughout the year to measure how well students are achieving the many learning targets along the way.

A reworked state testing program could use an accumulating score from formative tests, White said. That would also put more emphasis on how much each student is improving through the year.

Third Way, which describes itself as a centrist think tank, has been pushing similar remedies as potential common ground to ease the nation’s education wars.

By pushing federal accountability measures toward student growth instead of year-end sums, schools would more equally spread tutoring attention to all students rather than focusing on those who are performing at the cusp between different performance levels, said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky at Third Way.

And by keeping requirements of reporting on the performance growth of ethnic and other student subgroups, “we would not be throwing under the bus students who have been overlooked in the past,” she said.

A compromise bill, offered earlier this month by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, may present the best chance in eight years at reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act currently known as No Child Left Behind.

Among its proposals, it would preserve annual testing and reporting by subgroups, but allow states more flexibility in the measures they use and how they might break testing up across the school year.

Could it be?

For now, educators like English teacher Jessica Hoffecker at Staley High School in the North Kansas City district prepare for the test before them.

They adapt, she said.

“We’re breathing,” she said. “The panic is not there.”

It’s even a teachable moment, she said. She tells her students the real world presents high-stakes tests that are not always of your choosing.

“You go into it and make the best of it you can.”