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Alternatives to standardized tests

As opposition to overuse of standardized tests grows here and across the county, a public forum Thursday on Alternatives to Standardized Tests is being sponsored by a new local coalition.

It takes place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 24, at Hartzell Methodist Church, 3330 S. King Drive.

The forum features Dr. Monty Neil of FairTest, who advocates for dramatically reducing the use of standardized tests and incorporating a wider range of assessments reflecting classroom evidence of learning.

“Those of us who are concerned about too much standardized testing are often accused of wanting no accountability at all, and that’s just not the case,” said Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education, which is co-sponsoring the event.

The new coalition, More Than A Score, includes parents and teachers and a number of local organizations.  They’re calling for eliminating standardized testing for pre-school through second grade and greatly reducing it for older children, Woestehoff said.

An initial focus will be on tests designated as optional by the CPS central office but required by network officers, she said.

The group wants an end to evaluating student and teachers and closing schools based on test scores, and will push for “full disclosure of the cost, schedule, and nature of all standardized tests” used by CPS.

A whole lot of tests

The use of “bubble tests” is not like you might remember from your childhood, writes CPS high school teacher Adam Heenan at ClasssroomSooth.  His students start the year with a week of standardized testing, which is repeated midyear and again at the end of the year.  And that’s just one of several tests.

By 8th grade the average CPS students has taken over 100 standardized tests, according to Sharon Schmidt in Substance.

In her son’s elementary school last year, Schmidt writes, fifth graders had three CPS reading and math benchmark assessments, three Scantron Performance Series tests in reading and math, and quarterly pilot Common Core assessments in reading and math – all in addition to ISATs, which include three reading and three math tests.

According to Ben Joravsky, kindergartners are now taking four standardized tests, administered two or three times a year – consuming as much as 60 school days.  That’s so their teachers can be evaluated.

Because the Measurement of Academic Progress test is web-based, it ties up his school’s computer lab for the three-and-a-half weeks it takes to administer it to all students – and it’s given three times a year, writes Greg Ritchie, and education professor who has returned to a CPS classroom.  That’s ten weeks without a computer lab, a major loss for students who don’t have computers at home.

Ritchie points out that MAP has a margin of error that in some cases is larger than average student gains, which means the test is essentially meaningless.

It’s one of six standardized tests given to his eighth graders.

Scandals and resistance

The use of standardized tests for high-stakes decisions has led to test-grading scandals in several major cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and most notoriously, Washington D.C. under Michelle Rhee.

In Chicago, the CPS inspector general found ethical violations when powerhouse test publisher Houghton Miflin used an impressive range of inappropriate inducements to an administrator as part of a sales push.  (Since Houghton Miflin is so large, it was deemed impossible to bar the company from future contracts.)

Recently teachers at two Seattle high schools voted to refuse to administer mandated standardized tests, attracting widespread attention; 130 scholars and advocates (including Karen Lewis, Diance Ravitch, and Jonathan Kozol) have signed a letter supporting them.

In a statement from FairTest, Neil applauded the Seattle teachers and called the exams “useless.” “Children across the U.S. suffer from too much standardized testing that is misused to judge students, teachers, and schools,” he said

“Seattle requires administration of the MAP tests three times per year. This eliminates days of valuable teaching time and ties up the school’s computer labs for weeks.

“The tests are used to judge teachers even though they are not aligned with the state’s standards and not instructionally helpful. The Northwest Evaluation Association, which makes the test, says the MAPs are not accurate enough to evaluate individual teachers.

“No wonder some Seattle parents began opting their children out of these pointless tests even before the teachers’ boycott.”

According to FairTest, “the high stakes attached to tests have led to narrowing curriculum, teaching to the test, score inflation and cheating scandals.”

Meanwhile score gains on the independent National Assessment of Educational Progress are well below increases in the years before the No Child Left Behind Act began the test craze, and score gaps between whites and children of color have stopped narrowing.

FairTest and a national coalition of education and civil rights groups are circulating a resolution calling on school districts to implement meaningful assessment systems – and on Congress to overhaul NCLB and reduce testing mandates.

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