Computer-based testing in Mid-Columbia to be new standard

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldApril 13, 2013 

About 10 versions of standardized tests are being given to Pasco School District's almost 16,000 students during 16 weeks, with testing season stretching from January to the end of May.

"It ends up being quite a bit when you look at it," said Mark Garrett, the district's information systems and assessments director.

School officials say testing is important. Results can help a district track a student's progress and identify if that student needs more help or can move on to more difficult material. Tests also can show whether the district's curriculum is properly teaching students.

"Testing does provide good information that we can use," said Mike Hansen, assistant superintendent in the Richland School District.

But school officials said getting that information comes at a cost -- time and resources.

Seen as a necessary evil by some teachers, administrators and parents, state-mandated tests take away time from classroom instruction, put a financial and logistical burden on schools, and can be punitive toward teachers and students by requiring specific levels of achievement to receive resources.

More tests and a greater emphasis on them are on the horizon. A new set of computer-based and state-required assessments is being piloted in Mid-Columbia schools and will be the new standard in a few years. State lawmakers are considering adding two more exams for high school juniors.

And a new teacher evaluation system school districts are preparing to implement could consider test scores in assessing teacher effectiveness.

"Standardized testing does not measure a teacher's effectiveness," said Crystal Deranleau of Kennewick, a mother of a third-grader and a sophomore. "Some students are great test takers, others have test anxiety and fail every time."

In Finley, school Superintendent Lance Hahn said standardized testing is disruptive at the high school level because most classes at River View High, which enrolls about 300 students, are made up of mixed grades.

When one grade is being tested, the others have to wait before their lessons can continue. Students spend several days taking state-mandated math and science exams, a day taking an English proficiency exam and several reading and writing tests.

"They say we need more seat time, yet they take (students) out and test constantly," Hahn said.

Pasco Superintendent Saundra Hill said the tests take away valuable instruction time for her students, especially those most in need of it, such as English language learners and students who live in poverty. They also aren't always the best at measuring student ability, since most of the tests are only provided in English, meaning non-English speakers will struggle even if they do understand the material.

Prosser Superintendent Ray Tolcacher said it's expensive to administer state-mandated tests, from the cost of securing testing materials to training teachers and other administrators to serve as proctors.

And there's a lot of state tests to give:

w The Measurements of Student Progress, or MSP, given to elementary and middle school students.

w High School Proficiency Exams, or HSPEs, and End of Course, or EOC, exams for high school students.

w English language learners must take the Washington English Language Proficiency Assessment, or WELPA.

w Districts offering full-day kindergarten must give the WAKids assessments.

But some districts do more. Many Mid-Columbia districts and others in the state also conduct Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, testing.

"The state tests are not as valuable as instructional tools, primarily because of the delay in receiving results," said Bev Henderson, assessment coordinator for the Kennewick School District, which relies on MAP testing results to better track student progress and areas of weakness.

Test scores, Tolcacher said, are seen by some educators as a form of accountability. He and other officials said the state-mandated tests are tied to the federal No Child Left Behind Act -- federal legislation aimed at improving student achievement -- as well as Title 1, a federal revenue source for schools with students from low-income families, to determine school budgets.

"I'd like to see the accountability for (the lawmakers) for the money we're putting into Olympia," Tolcacher said.

Teachers also are rallying against standardized tests. Seattle teachers are in the midst of a boycott of the MAP tests, which were developed 40 years ago in coordination with teachers to gain a better understanding of student growth. The Seattle teachers have said the tests are excessive and are being used to evaluate them and their administrators as well as their students.

Educators aren't the only ones who want to see less standardized testing. Some state lawmakers introduced legislation to reduce the number of EOC exams to three from five. State Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, supported the legislation as a way to help school districts save money. The bill also was supported by House Democrat Sam Hunt of Olympia, a former Pasco High School teacher.

"I don't think that's a good way to grade schools or teachers," he told the Herald. "This will save money but it's also a philosophical thing."

That bill never made it out of the House Education Committee. However, a Senate bill opposed by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and teacher unions would add English language arts and math exams for high school juniors. That bill has already passed on the Senate floor and was discussed during a public hearing of the House Committee on Education in mid-March.

Hahn said the state also is pushing forward with its new teacher evaluation system that would at least partly rely on student test scores to rate teachers. At the same time, state education officials are trying to implement a new set of math and language arts benchmarks -- called the Common Core State Standards -- that will also come with their own new set of standardized tests, the Smarter Balanced Assessments.

All this is supposed to be implemented statewide by the 2014-15 school year. Many districts already are starting to transition to the Common Core curriculum and some Mid-Columbia schools are piloting the new tests, but aspects of the old systems are still in place.

"You can't build an evaluation system around current curriculum when Common Core changes everything," Hahn said."We're asking everybody to do a lot of stuff instead of getting one set and then the other to make sure it's done correctly."

The Smarter Balanced Assessments could create another problem for school districts. Because the new tests will be administered on computers via the Internet, school officials said it means they'll have to bulk up their computer labs. It's not been said whether districts will get more money to do this, school officials said.

Some are voicing optimism about this new test. Mary Snitily, Prosser's assistant superintendent, said there are indications the Smarter Balanced Assessments will provide results more quickly than the state's current system which could eliminate the need for MAP testing.

"I have a feeling, in the future, our assessment system will be more streamlined," she said.

There is another piece of legislation Klippert helped get out of the House Education Committee that would require districts to notify parents of exactly how much testing their student is taking part in, along with costs to schools. That bill was touted as a way for parents to better understand the effect testing has in schools beyond scores. However, Republican officials said that bill likely won't move forward.

So for now, educators, students and parents are left trying to find time for classroom instruction and the tests that are supposed to show that classroom instruction is working.

"I really do think they should be focusing on teaching and learning the material," Deranleau said.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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