They’ve had enough (online) testing in Alaska

The New York State Education Department last week released results of its Common Core-aligned tests, noting a slight increase in the number of students who opted out of the exams, following a school year in which testing problems soared and Alaska completely cancelled their tests, as KCAW reported in April.

Testing started in Alaska, using the Alaska Measures of Progress tests from the Achievement and Assessment Institute at the University of Kansas, on March 29. But a construction worker in Kansas accidentally cut a fiber optic cable and made screens go blank for students who were taking the test on computer. Several student responses were lost in the accident, the schools found themselves in a state of chaos, and Susan McCauley, interim commissioner for Alaska’s education department, announced on April 1 that the tests were called off.

“We now know that the system was patched in a manner that folks thought would work,” the station quoted her as saying. “We didn’t know that until Thursday after things crashed, but the reality is that it doesn’t have the bandwidth right now necessary to support students in Alaska and Kansas testing at the same time.”

The state also cancelled science tests, which are not part of the Common Core-aligned battery of tests but were also administered online in Alaska.

Ms McCaluey said she made the decision to cancel the tests out of a concern that the inconsistent testing environment rendered student results invalid. “So if this is a question of validity at this point—if we don’t believe the results are a true reflection of what our students have learned—there is no reason to give the assessment.”

Given an opt-out rate higher than 20 percent for the last two years in New York, it’s pretty clear parents and students in that state don’t think the exams being given, which purport to test students’ mastery of the learning standards in the Common Core, are a “true reflection of what our students have learned” either.

But even Ms McCauley in Alaska said she understood that testing brings critical information to schools. It is a “system of accountability for public schools that I think is important. [Tests] should provide parents and teachers with valuable information about how students are doing.”

Still, if students aren’t motivated to take the test or if they are repeatedly interrupted or frustrated by the technology or aspects of the questions themselves, the test is not valid, and any dollar spent on it—Alaska estimated it had paid less than $10 million over the last two years of the contract before cancelling it—is wasted.

Problems in Texas

The top education official in Texas called technical problems that some students experienced with the STAAR test “simply unacceptable,” the Dallas Morning News reported.

“The technical issues experienced today during the online administration of STAAR are simply unacceptable,” Education Commissioner Mike Morath was quoted as saying. “Such issues undermine the hard work of our teachers and students. Kids in the classroom should never suffer from mistakes made by adults.”

Problems were reported in Austin to Arlington, the paper noted. The testing vendor, Educational Testing Service (ETS), said, “This is a critical issue and we have several teams investigating it. … We need to do further investigation to confirm that [computers saved students’ answers before the interruption occurred].”

Guidance from real research

The idea that standardized tests are good for schools and measure what students know and are able to do depends on the notion that being able to “remember” something makes learning better than simple “re-reading” the information. If that’s true, it is also true that students will learn material better if they have to take a test on the material.

From a kid’s point of view, that is, if a certain topic’s not going to be “on the test,” students may give the topic a lower priority in their studying than they give those bits of information they have to remember because they will be on the test.

“In one famous experiment,” write Yana Weinstein and Megan Smith in the Boston Globe, “participants tried to learn information from a textbook either by repeatedly re-reading, or repeatedly writing out everything they could remember after reading the information only once. The strategy of writing from memory led to 60 percent correct recall of the material one week later, compared to only 40 percent in the repeated reading condition.”

Ms Weinstein is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and Ms Smith is an assistant professor of psychology at Rhode Island College.

“The idea that teaching to a test isn’t really teaching implies an almost astounding assumption that standardized tests are filled with meaningless, ill-thought-out questions on irrelevant or arbitrary information,” they continue. “This may be based on the myth that ‘teachers in the trenches’ are being told what to teach by some ‘experts’ who’ve probably never set foot in a ‘real’ classroom.”

Most of the people who decide what questions will be on the tests are, in fact, teachers or were teachers earlier in their careers. Every single question on a standardized test in Maryland is approved by my colleagues at the Maryland State Department of Education and by several committees of educators they bring in from local school districts. These educators, not the testing vendors, guide the questions so they’re relevant to the curriculum teachers are supposed to be teaching.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.