Test Stress: Weighing Balance of Time, Data, Effort

Comstock Park High School Principal Steve Gough knows too well the stress of cramming more testing into the classroom — and crowding out valuable instructional time.

Comstock Park juniors this year are spending more time on standardized tests due to new state laws on testing and teacher evaluation. For example, a new online state test for 11th-graders will take four and a half hours longer than last year’s 90-minute version taken as part of the Michigan Merit Examination, he said. That’s in addition to the ACT Plus Writing and WorkKeys tests that also are part of the MME.

“I’m trying to keep an open mind,” Gough said last fall as he looked ahead to the test onslaught. “I feel that we are already getting very effective data” through standardized testing. That includes ACT testing in one day, ACT PLAN (now ACT Aspire) testing for sophomores in one day, and Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) testing three times a year.

“I’m concerned that we’re giving up instructional time for something I believe we don’t need at the moment,” Gough added. “I’m not sure the legislators agree with me on that.”

More and more people like Gough are saying enough is enough, as ever-increasing weight placed on standardized testing continues to cause high-stakes repercussions for school districts, educators and students.

“We all know that we have to have some measures to determine if our students are learning.”
—  Elizabeth Welch-Lykins, parent and school board member

“I think as a culture we are overemphasizing these scores with kids,” Gough said. “I believe the scores matter, but I also believe the scores are a snapshot of a student’s performance on a given day with a given test. It only matters when you compare it to a large body of data over time, and then we can use it to talk to students about learning trends and things they should work on.

“But this high-stakes process, where we are labeling the student as proficient and non-proficient, puts so much pressure on kids.”

Amid Mounting Pressures, Districts Face Changing Tests and Schedules

Students in grades three through eight will take the The Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress – M-STEP, which is the revised MEAP. The testing schedule works like this:
 

  • Students in grade three and six will take English language arts and math
  • Students in grades four and seven will take science, English language arts and math
  • Students in grade five will take social studies, English language arts and math 
  • Students in grade eight will take social studies, English language arts and math
  • Students in grade 11 will also take M-STEP summative assessments in English language arts (ELA), mathematics, science, and social studies
     

The tests will primarily be taken online, with a paper and pencil option for schools not yet technology-ready, explained Dorothy VanderJagt, director of Teaching and Learning for Kent ISD.

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A Different Test, Too

Educators have been thrown another curveball with the state changing its mandatory high school assessment from the ACT to the SAT beginning in 2016. That means ACT prep work might not directly prepare students for the test they will be taking.

Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent David Britten said the change to SAT leaves districts and high schools holding the bag for the higher costs of professional development and prep materials.

“We’ve invested a lot of time and effort over the years towards developing a college-readiness focus at middle and high school, using the ACT Explore and ACT Plan (tests for lower grade levels) leading up to the actual ACT test,” Britten said. “This has provided us with a wealth of data that we track for each student and use to improve our curriculum and instruction. Those potential costs for districts should have been part of the decision-making model in Lansing.”

A recent PDK/Gallup Poll showed 54 percent of Americans believe standardized tests are unhelpful in informing teachers of their students’ academic performance. Also, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced a one-year moratorium in tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. In a blog post last fall he wrote that “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.”

A reprieve would be welcome, educators say. They face the fact that teacher evaluation, school rankings and state intervention are now tied to the classroom ritual of filling in test-sheet bubbles with number 2 pencils. In Michigan, the state assessment has been the MEAP, but this year was changed to the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (see related story). Traditionally taken in October, this year the tests will be given in the spring.

Wyoming High School Frontiers Program teacher Tracey Replogle said testing is an ongoing anxiety. Frontiers enrolls students working at different paces, from recovering credits to graduating early. Test scores reflect on her as a teacher and on the program, Replogle said.

“It is my primary concern,” Replogle said. Though she works with students to get them to perform how they need to on the test, she said in many ways the content falls short of what they need to know.

“I want them to leave here being ready for the world, for real-world problem-solving, dealing with day-to-day issues, being good community members and good parents and conscientious friends,” Replogle said. “That’s very difficult to do when you have that test hanging over their heads.”

High-Stakes Testing has Created
‘Winners and Losers’

High-stakes standardized testing has been a lightning rod for controversy through the enactment of educational programs including President Bush’s No Child Left Behind  and Adequate Yearly Progress standards more than a decade ago, President Obama’s Race to the Top initiatives, and currently because of nationwide debate surrounding Common Core.

Test scores are the determining factor on how a school performs. Proficient or not-proficient scores can affect a school’s reputation; enrollment, which is tied to school funding, and even whether a teacher is considered effective. Results are posted publicly and government-intervention and state takeovers are possible when an entire student body fails to meet standards.

The original purpose of standardized testing was to monitor how well a student is doing in school, but it’s become something different, said Kentwood Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff.

“It became a score card, a game with winners and losers, when the whole point was to get kids to be their best,” Zoerhoff said.

Bottom Line: A Lot of Time Spent on Testing

Along with MEAP there are tests to prepare for assessments, and tests layered on top of tests to gauge progress along the way. They take up a big chunk of time.

“Testing mandates placed upon school districts have resulted in a massive patchwork of standardized tests that districts have to administer — some of which produce data that is actually very unhelpful,” said Elizabeth Welch-Lykins, an East Grand Rapids parent and Board of Education member. “This results in the school districts having to give other tests that produce data that actually is helpful.

“As a school board member, I was shocked when I saw the testing matrix that our administration has to manage. It’s massive and complex.”

East Grand Rapids High School Guidance counselor Lori Johnston agreed the testing schedule is onerous.

“(Legislators’) intent was valiant, but I don’t think they understand the effects on instruction. There are ever-increasing demands,” Johnston said, noting that her high-performing district has done well to embed standards into instruction. “Teaching to the test — in a sense you kind of have to. You really have to look at the standards.

“We have to keep doing what we’ve always done. It’s so unknown. There are certain things we can prepare for and other things out of our control.”

Ties to Evaluations

While superintendents don’t use student growth as the sole meter in assessing how well a teacher is doing, legislation approved by the Michigan Legislature requires that districts must use state-level assessment data when available and at least in part for evaluations. Next year the law requires 50 percent of evaluation to be based on student growth and assessment.

However, state lawmakers are expected to consider a new bill that will likely reflect a 25 percent rate for three years, increasing to 40 or 50 percent over time, said Chris Glass, director of legislative affairs for the West Michigan Talent Triangle.

“I think as a culture we are overemphasizing these scores with kids.” — Steve Gough, principal

Jennifer Slanger, principal of Wyoming Public Schools’ Oriole Park Elementary School, recently completed her doctoral dissertation on tying test scores to teacher evaluations. Teachers she surveyed from a western Michigan ISD said the stress of tests on their jobs is creating a more competitive, less collaborative school culture. Teachers avoid talking about best instructional practices and sharing resources.

“Another big factor: Teachers were not in support of this because of the numerous factors out of their control which may impact the learning environment,” Slanger said. She cited the effects of students’ home life, previous school experiences, parent support of education and socioeconomic status on their performance.

Teachers Nervous about New Test

Uncertainty has teachers concerned about what to expect this year, especially when test results are tied to teacher evaluations, said Dorothy VanderJagt, director of Teaching and Learning for Kent ISD.

This school year, third- through eighth-graders will take the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress –or M-STEP — and 11th-graders will take the M-STEP Michigan Merit Exam, the Michigan Department of Education announced in December. But the M-STEP is a one-year assessment that could be replaced again in 2015-2016 with a different test that aligns with the Common Core, the new national set of educational standards.

Teachers want relevant and valid assessments and they want them to align to the standards they are being taught, VanderJagt said.

“You want the students to feel comfortable so they are given time to learn what is being assessed,” VanderJagt said. “If any of these assessments are tied to teacher evaluation or school rankings, it makes educators extremely nervous. Not knowing exactly what the test will look like this year in Michigan, there’s a lot of anxiety.”

“I want them to leave here being ready for the world. That’s very difficult to do when you have that test hanging over their heads.” — Tracey Replogle, teacher

Teachers are working hard to be innovative and creative despite the looming tests, said Tracey Replogle, the Wyoming Frontiers teacher.

“Educators are doing their darnedest to do both, and that’s where the stress is coming in,” Replogle said. “I don’t see any reason to not have teachers be held accountable, but with just that one test, what do you do? How do you fix that?”

Tense Atmospheres

Anxiety can have a ripple effect, she and others said.

“If the teacher’s a little nervous, the students can sense that. It’s the uncertainty of not knowing what that test is,” VanderJagt said. “That makes them nervous, especially tied to teacher evaluation,” she added, noting being judged as effective or not by one test is also a concern.

As evidence, she shared comments recently received from teachers:

“Every year I get emails from a few parents saying that their kid is having trouble sleeping, complaining of stomach aches, because of the ‘pressure’ of the test,” said one teacher.

“We also have no control over if our student had a good night’s sleep, or ate a good breakfast. We don’tknow if their basic needs are being met on any given day, but especially on assessment days,” said another.

In EGR, Elizabeth Welch-Lykins said she has concerns too.

“We all know that we have to have some measures to determine if our students are learning,” she said. “The concern I have as a parent is that standardized tests do not measure intangibles such as critical thinking skills and creativity — factors that actually matter in our new economy, and that will differentiate our nation to make us competitive with the world.”

CONNECT

Arne Duncan’s Blog on Standardized Tests and Teacher Evaluation

Obsessed with Tests: Is There Another Way?

Current Test Schedule for Michigan Students

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2012. Read Erin's full bio

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