Efforts afoot to limit student testing across Mid-Columbia

Students take a test in the computer lab at Badger Mountain Elementary School in Richland in this file photo.
Students take a test in the computer lab at Badger Mountain Elementary School in Richland in this file photo. Tri-City Herald

Juan Mojica and Carson Bergstrom were preparing for exams in their Advanced Placement courses when they were told they needed to take another standardized test.

The test, the Smarter Balanced Assessment in math and language arts, will eventually be a graduation requirement for Washington high school students. But Juan and Carson, seniors who attend Chiawana and Pasco high schools, needed to take it because it’s state mandated to show school performance.

“I feel like I went in blind,” said Juan, a student representative on the Pasco School Board, during a recent meeting.

“Personally, I didn’t find much use in it,” Carson added. His performance on AP exams is considered by university admissions staff, he noted, but not his scores on the state-mandated test, commonly called the SBAC.

Tens of thousands of students in Mid-Columbia schools will sit down at computers or with pencils and bubble sheets from now until the end of the school year for various standardized assessments.

Most people, from administrators and teachers to parents and students, think it’s excessive, taking away from classroom instruction and student learning and even financial resources.

There are efforts to ease the testing burden, from districts changing or even eliminating tests to state officials working in the Legislature to trim the exams required for graduation or providing alternatives.

But the results aren’t likely to show up for years, and it’s proved difficult to meld the various demands on testing data into just a few assessments.

“We’re tying to move in that direction,” said Richland Assistant Superintendent Mike Hansen. “It is growing pains.”

The many forms of testing

The SBAC, given to students in grades 3-8 and high school juniors; and the Measures of Student Progress, or MSP, science test for fifth- and eighth-graders, are required to meet federal academic accountability requirements.

But there’s a bevy of other tests many students take. The English Language Proficiency Assessment 21st Century, or ELPA 21, is given to English language learners to determine their placement in bilingual programs. Many districts give Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, tests throughout the school year, including in the spring, to determine student growth.

The testing landscape is particularly muddied for high school students, as what’s required for graduation changes every year. This year’s seniors, the Class of 2016, must pass one exam each in math and language arts out of several offered. That’s on top of other testing, such as for AP or International Baccalaureate courses, or college entrance exams such as the ACT or SAT.

I hear the parent frustration.

Bev Henderson, Kennewick School District assessment coordinator

“It’s taking far too much of our children’s time,” said Pasco School Board member Amy Phillips during a recent meeting. She called on the board to push lawmakers at the state and federal level to act on limiting standardized testing.

The Pasco School District is conducting a review of how much testing it does as part of its new contract with teachers, who only want tests that align with adopted curriculum. District officials have added that data from tests such as the MAP and ELPA 21 help the district qualify for grant dollars that go toward teacher salaries.

The Kennewick School Board tentatively decided in January to cut MAP testing for its sophomores, with administrators noting the results were of limited use. The Richland School District has largely cut MAP testing, replacing it with a new screening assessment that takes students 30 minutes to complete, a fraction of the time some spent on the MAP test.

“They aren’t near as intrusive,” Hansen said.

But districts still are hesitant to fully cut out tests such as MAP because they are familiar with them and they’ve long used them to inform instruction. Even Richland still uses the test to screen students for its Highly Capable program.

“It’s the one consistent measure we’ve had for years,” said Kennewick Assistant Superintendent Chuck Lybeck.

By comparison, state standardized tests have changed every couple of years, making their results incomparable, and also provide data that isn’t as attuned to helping teachers shape classroom instruction.

The SBAC does offer interim assessments aimed at helping teachers but the test is still relatively new and those assessments don’t fully fit in with how some districts review student progress, district administrators said.

Testing the waters in Olympia

The Washington State Board of Education is tracking at least four bills in the Legislature aimed at reducing testing requirements, mostly for high school students. Two bills would eliminate the biology end-of-course test, or EOC, if approved.

Ben Rarick, the state board’s executive director, said the state has adopted new science standards that don’t match up with the biology test. State lawmakers waived that test for graduating seniors last year and this year but it’s set to go back into effect for the Class of 2017.

“We feel like we should regard that test as a remnant of the past,” Rarick said.

Another bill the state board supports would allow students to make up a failed test needed for graduation by taking additional courses that qualify for college credit. A fourth bill, which would create a pilot program to use SAT or ACT results in lieu of those from the SBAC, is opposed by the state board, with Rarick saying those college entrance exams are already permitted as alternatives for students who don’t pass the SBAC.

None of those bills, however, is very far along in the Legislature, and the short session is scheduled to end March 10. There is hope some of those issues may be addressed in a “catch-all” bill that’s been set up in the House, Rarick said.

I think we need to ask why we have so many college placement assessments and do students need to take all of them? There’s a blizzard of them out there.

Ben Rarick, executive director, state Board of Education

Rarick said there is a need to limit the amount of time students spend on testing and the state board is supportive of streamlining. Certain language arts and end-of-course math exams will be phased out by the SBAC in the next several years. But he said part of the conversation around testing also needs to include colleges and universities.

For now, though, Mid-Columbia students will have to weather the testing season as they have for years, which Abraham Mendoza, a senior at Delta High School, has learned to take in stride.

“The only tests I really worry about are those I need to graduate,” he said.