By Mel Riddile, Ed.D.
Note: I intended that this blog entry would focus only on the technical side of online testing, but so much has happened in recent weeks that I would not do justice to the topic if I ignored the context in which the new, online testing occurs.
With the spring testing season now winding down, principals in a number of states feel as though they are under siege. For some schools, whatever could go wrong has gone wrong.
From my contact with principals in a number of states and my ongoing work with principals in schools in five states, I have learned that online assessments present principals with a number of new and old challenges.
I have divided this post into two parts. Part 1 will address no-technical challenges principals face in implementing the new assessments. Part 2 will address the technical issues.
Following are six non-technical challenges school leaders face in implementing online testing related to the Common Core and new college- and career-ready standards:
The new standards are a decade-long implementation initiative.
Whereas some reformers mistakenly believe that the Common Core and new college- and career-ready standards have already been implemented, I know differently. When our state implemented, new higher standards accompanied by new assessments, every school failed the first iteration of the tests. We learned very quickly what many across the country will learn when they receive the results of their first assessments.
The first round is the real beginning of the implementation process. We all know how important feedback is to the learning process and this is the first time our teachers and students will receive any feedback. Up until now, we have been teaching and praying that we are doing the right thing.
From the very beginning, I have been pushing for a moratorium on the use of test scores from the new tests to evaluate teachers and schools because, from experience, I know that it will take at least three years to gain familiarity with the new assessments before any real progress is made.
The uncertain political climate has poisoned the well for school leaders and cost some schools two years of implementation.
Budget battles, conflicts over perceived federal intrusion into education, debates over the Common Core Standards, and reworking testing contracts have undermined the ability of principals to convince their staffs to stay the course and made the already arduous task of implementing new standards and new assessments even more tenuous. The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior, and, when it comes to school change, we have attempted to implement too many initiatives at one time, and, as a result, we have failed to follow-up.
The typical teacher has a change history of one new initiative year after year with little to no follow-up. That is why it is so hard for principals to get any meaningful initiative off the ground. The ‘this too shall pass’ attitude is a major impediment to school improvement.
Principals attempting to convince teachers that the new standards are the real thing and are here to stay are frustrated by the conflicting rhetoric emerging from state legislatures. One thing is certain—once states raise standards, they will not lower them.
The overt “opt-out” movement has placed principals in a no-win situation.
Some states and districts are barely impacted by those encouraging students to overtly opt-out of the new assessments—either stay at home or refuse to take the tests outright. Others states have been significantly impacted. One writer urged parents to use the threat to opt-out as a way to get principals to make concessions.
The problem is principals do not make policies regarding standards, testing, or who can opt-out. Principals simply follow the state and district policies. States decide what the tests mean to schools, teachers, and students. The problem lies in the fact the some states have provided little to no guidance to districts and schools regarding opt-out policies. However, the federal government has set mandatory participation levels, which means that, if enough students opt-out, the schools lose federal funding.
When states decide that students are not accountable for their performance on state tests, they are encouraging students to covertly opt-out.
Let me state emphatically that I would not work in a state in which students were not held accountable for the results of state assessments!
The first four years of our state testing were a disaster. We wasted far too much time pleading with students to take the tests seriously. Students were not held accountable for their performance on state tests, but our school was! The reputation of our school and our careers were dependent on the good will of fourteen to eighteen year-olds who were justifiably sick-and-tired of testing and who had never received any meaningful feedback, aside from “proficient” or “below proficient”, from those tests.
Students across the country have been covertly opting-out of tests for years. Students simply mark a box without reading the question also known as “Christmas-treeing” tests. Schools have been closed, principals fired, and teachers transferred based on the results of tests that did not matter for students. I know because I have worked with some of these schools.
One principal told me that his seniors decided to play a prank and “Christmas-tree” their state test. The school went from one of the top schools in the state to being placed on the ‘accredited with warning’ list. In another school, the senior class salutatorian, who is now attending and Ivy League school, failed all his state tests. These students did not overtly opt-out, but they certainly covertly opted-out.
When our state made the tests barriers to graduation, our world changed. Instead of trying to motivate students to give their best on the state test, we had to figure how to feed them if they took longer on the test and testing ran into the lunch periods. Only those who have worked in schools understand that, the older students get, the harder it is to motivate them to take the state tests seriously. If there is nothing in it for them, they will not take the tests seriously.
Convincing staff and parents that the new assessments are worth the effort?
I can emphatically state that our old assessments were not worth teaching to. In all fairness, those inexpensive, multiple-choice tests were never meant to be an indicator of college or career-readiness. They were simply validating a high school diploma.
Last fall, Paul Furthmyer, principal of Anaconda High School in Montana, asked me if the new Smarter Balanced assessments really were a new kind of assessment? Did these new tests demand deeper thinking from students? The answer is a resounding “Yes.”
One study revealed that only 3-10% of old tests measured higher-order skills. On the other hand, the new, SBAC and PARCC assessments measured high-order thinking ranging from 61% (math) to 78% (ELA).
SBAC DOK3 DOK4
Math 49% 21%
ELA 43% 25%
Some Schools In Some States Are Over-Testing
In some schools, student performance is negatively impacted because students are simply ‘test weary.’ Our state was among the most heavily tested. We had eleven end-of-course exams that were barriers to graduation and the tests were used to calculate AYP. An average student in our school sat for three exams per year as well as expedited re-takes.
From a technology standpoint, our school shut down during the month of testing. We administered thousands of tests and re-tests during that time, and I am not even counting the hundreds of IB and AP exams our students took. Even though we had more tests, I did not believe that our students were over-tested. My objection was that the multiple-choice tests emphasized more ‘gaming the system’ than deeper learning.
Our experience was nothing compared to what some schools are enduring. One principal told me that each of his students sits for twenty tests per year—sixteen district tests and four state tests.