Wednesday, March 9, 2016

State Testing: Opt Out Is Out. Test Shopping Is a Definite Maybe

Posted By on Wed, Mar 9, 2016 at 10:31 AM

This year, not one but two bills tried to allow parents to opt their children out of high stakes state testing. Both failed. On the other hand, in what I believe is a first in the nation, the legislature put a bill on Ducey's desk to allow schools to choose the state test they give to their students from a menu of options.

Basically, the "Opt Out" question boils down to how important and valuable you believe high stakes testing is. People who think the tests are a vital and accurate measure of student achievement are against allowing students to sit out the test because that messes up the sample. How can you measure the achievement of a given classroom or school unless all the students—or at least 95 percent of them—are tested? Then there are people who think our obsession with yearly high stakes testing is damaging our children's educations. They maintain the tests aren't a valid measure of student learning and achievement, they turn classrooms into teaching-to-the-test factories, and they stigmatize teachers and schools with students whose socioeconomic situations mean most of them will do poorly on the tests. Those people want to encourage parents to opt their children out as a step toward changing or eliminating the current testing regimen. (Full disclosure: I'm an opt out advocate for the reasons mentioned above.)

The state testing menu is a new and untried idea which is backed by most Republicans but has garnered a certain amount of bipartisan support. It goes like this. According to the bill, in addition to the yearly AzMERIT test which is currently required at all public schools, district and charter, "the State Board of Education shall adopt a menu of locally procured achievement tests to measure pupil achievement of the state academic standards." Districts and schools can choose any test from the menu, or they can find a different test and ask the board's permission to use it. The one exception is, if a school has a D or F grade, it has to stick with the AzMERIT exam.

If this gets Ducey's signature, it's going to be interesting to watch its implementation. Can a district use different tests at different schools? I believe so. That would certainly happen if a district that chooses a new test from the menu contains some D or F schools, which would be required to take the AzMERIT. And the law says the "local education agency" can choose to give tests from the menu "to pupils in one or more schools." (It sounds like there may be some wiggle room to give different tests to different students in an individual school, though I don't think that's the bill's intention.)

Somehow, all these tests have to be normed in a way that allows the results to be compared. Otherwise, how could you use the various tests to create a sliding scale of achievement levels at different schools? How could you assign A through F grades? To even come close to making sure the pass-fail bar is set at the same height for all tests would require an extensive, expensive sampling of students who would take multiple tests, or samples from the tests, to see how they scored across each of them.

If that norming is accomplished to the state's satisfaction, I'm sure districts and schools will pore over the tests to decide which will maximize their students' scores. Test shopping will be added to teaching to the test as a strategy to boost schools' ratings without actually increasing the quality of students' educations.

Apparently, one thing being talked about is using the PSAT, SAT or ACT as the high stakes test for high school sophomores. As well as putting the schools on an achievement continuum, the sophomore test is used to decide if students graduate. The PSAT, SAT and ACT are designed as college readiness exams and may be ill suited to be used as high stakes high school tests. I'm not a student of standardized testing, but I know standardized tests designed for the entire spectrum of students are structured to have enough ability-appropriate questions for all levels of students to assess their abilities. The college readiness exams are most likely skewed to assess students in the middle to upper ranges of achievement most carefully and are less careful about assessing students at the lower achievement levels. The best high stakes tests are a fuzzy measure of student ability, but the PSAT, SAT and ACT tests may be worse.

If Ducey signs the bill, we'll see if the testing menu idea goes forward or collapses under its own weight. The plan is supposed to go into effect in the 2017-18 school year at the high school level and 2018-19 for grades three through eight. That's a very short window.

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