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Looking for the lowdown on student testing

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Readers have been sending in great recommendations for a New Mexico bucket list. My next UpFront column will feature the cream of the crop, so please send yours in – and include a photo if you have one.

The term “testing wolves” could be a perfect example of a metaphor (a comparison not using the word “like” or “as”) or hyperbole (extreme exaggeration) regarding the ongoing debate on standardized assessments for New Mexico students.

Entire websites and Facebook pages have been built around the number of hours students are subjected to tests, and those tests’ high cost and low relevance to real life.

As we say in the news business, it’s even “better if true.”

Putting the fairy tale metaphors and hyperbole aside for a moment, let’s look at the numbers – as in how many tests are required, how many hours are spent taking them (not the window set aside to administer them), and how many taxpayer dollars pay for them.

map templateThe state Public Education Department website lists the tests it requires and the time it takes students to do them:

In kindergarten and first grade, students are given “interim (reading) assessments” that take 3 to 6 minutes three times a year. That’s a maximum of 18 minutes in a school year.

In second grade, those assessments take a little longer, 6 to 10 minutes three times a year, for a maximum of 30 minutes in a school year.

And while there is debate about sticking with the state-preferred DIBELS test or adding another, educators who do both, and in theory double the testing time, are dedicating from 36 minutes to an hour to testing in a school year.

Until this school year, grades 3 to 8 and 10 to 11 were required to take the Standards Based Assessments, most of which will be replaced in the spring by PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). PED says it estimates “the PARCC exam will take about as long or possibly less time to complete, than the SBA.”

Under the SBA system, grades 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 11 spent 9 hours testing on reading, math and in certain grades writing or science. Grades 6 and 10 spent 6 hours.

In addition, grades 4 to 6 and 8 take the Performance Based Assessment, which is supposed to take 45 to 60 minutes and covers physical education, visual arts and music. And ninth- and 10th-graders take a 30- to 90-minute reading, language arts and math assessment three times a year. And high school courses are required to have an end-of-course/final exam, which can run 1 to 2 hours each.

To recap, K-1, 18 minutes of state-mandated testing max. Second grade, 30 minutes max. Third grade, 9 hours. Fourth and fifth, 10 hours. Sixth grade, 7 hours. Seventh and eighth, 10 hours. In high school, ninth grade, 4.5 hours plus 1 to 2 hours per final exam; 10th grade, 10.5 hours plus finals; and 11th grade, 9 hours plus finals.

State law mandates students spend 180 days in school, with kindergarten through sixth grade running 5.5 hours a day and grades 7 to 12 six hours a day. At most, a high school student with six courses that require finals on the longer end would take 22.5 hours of state tests.

That’s less than four instructional days a year.

Of course there’s also the time prepping for those mandatory test days.

Yet it’s important to note standardized tests are supposed to be measuring standard skills, such as: Can a student at a specific grade level do addition or multiplication or algebra, discern the theme of a short reading or identify and explain scientific terms (like “molarity” in chemistry)?

The whole idea is to make the “test” in “teaching to the test” reflective not of rote memorization but of the skills needed for higher education, employment and life.

Albuquerque Public Schools’ Rose-Ann McKernan says “our district administers only the tests now required by PED or state statute,” and the APS website has updated its testing times to include PARCC. However, there is a wide disparity – in some grades the testing time is more than double the state’s. Yet even the longer estimates add up to five or six instructional days out of a school year; APS has an 11th-grader with seven finals and no retakes at 28.45 hours a year. That still doesn’t seem like an amount that would make Little Red Riding Hood run screaming out of the classroom.

As for cost, APS says it shells out $3.5 million of its $690 million budget on testing a year. Larry Behrens of the PED says the state spends $5.3 million annually on SBA and EoC exams and $1.8 million on DIBELS, for a grand total of just over $7.1 million, “or roughly .3 percent of the $2.57 billion education budget.”

And there’s another point to be made apart from the small portions of time and money spent testing.

Ohio teacher Dawn Neely-Randall makes a great observation, posting that “not one graded standardized test has EVER been returned to the students, their parents, or to me, the teacher.”

The PED says that in New Mexico, SBA and DIBELS results, not graded tests, are given to teachers as a security measure to “preserve the integrity of the test.” Yet Neely-Randall asks, “If we’re forced to stop instruction to give state tests, shouldn’t a student’s results at least be used to help further that student’s academics?”

If the goal is to ensure students are learning, the answer has to be yes. And that could make the so-called testing wolf run howling out of the classroom instead.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to assistant editorial page editor D’Val Westphal at 823-3858 or road@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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