And then I got the test notice…

It’s been a banner month for testing in Chicago. Test companies: billions, students: 0.

As I’ve mentioned before, I sit on the Assessment Review Task Force in Illinois. A task force that is quickly proving itself to be a puppet for the state. We met in December, canceled in January because of the governor’s swearing-in, I skipped February because CPS canceled school, and we met virtually in March. The virtual meeting was a clever move on the part of the chairs, who had us all on mute and removed two-way or group communication via the webinar format, removing all opportunity for discussion both while motions were made and throughout the meeting. Can someone explain to me how this follows OMA?

A survey was sent in late February to 150 district superintendents, asking them to forward it to their principals, teachers, parents, and students, and to answer questions about standardized testing practices in their districts. In this “random” sample, a scant 1/3 of districts responded. We don’t know which districts they are, because knowing skews the randomness (or so they told us). I believe that CPS, the largest school district in the state, either held or selectively responded to the survey because none of the CPS task force members  (a principal, a teacher, a parent) reported seeing or hearing about the survey.

The optimist in me wants to believe that my frustration can be explained by my lack of survey / stats knowledge. The realist in me is cynical.

Our chairs stressed that random sampling is, by nature, random and responses are not forced. A certain number of responses were rude. But barely over 200 parental responses and less than 50 student responses from 36 counties will be the basis from which this task force will report its “findings” in May. Um, what?

Overall, parents’ perception of tests was not assessed in the same way as that of teachers, principals, or superintendents. The latter group was asked to rate advantages and disadvantages of tests. I can only assume the writers thought parents were too stupid to understand terms like “measures student progress,” “informs educational practice,” or “informs placement decisions,” or “loss of instructional time,” “disrupts normal schedule and activities,” or “increases student stress and anxiety.” Those terms are how the approximately 300 superintendents, principals, and teachers got to respond to the survey, and represent the top three advantages and disadvantages on every question.

Instead, parents rated three things – information conveyed from the district, the helpfulness of that information, and impact on a “typical school day.” Thanks to the ARTF, I just got the 101 course on survey bias.

The ancillary comments spoke volumes about how parents really feel. Five comments were about student stress. Four comments were about test/prep. And three were about how well parents are able to compare their students to other students. I can only assume that those families themselves skipped the chapter on early 20th century philanthropy and the comments of Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “comparison is the thief of joy.”

Rather conveniently, in the data that was recorded, the frustration and anxiety of parents, teachers, and students over test prep/performance was made to be a non-issue. Maybe I am too deeply affected by my own mounting frustration with tests and over-testing in modern America to see this issue clearly. But I think there’s a message to be found in the data that may not make it into the written report: 247 votes for “disadvantages: loss of instructional time;” 169 votes for “advantages: measures student progress.”

My kids’ school is spending the week taking the PARCC. The Girl has a running tally of all that she’s missed because of standardized testing: Spanish class, lifesavers, homework, progress on her Western Civilizations project, her teachers’ respect. If we go back a few weeks to NWEA testing, her tally grows ever longer to include recess and opera class. The PARCC, which she isn’t taking, is ostensibly to show that in eight years, The Girl will be “ready for college and career” when she graduates from high school. Couldn’t we worry about that when she is closer to being developmentally ready to be launched out of the family nest and into college and career?

NWEA is supposed to provide more immediate feedback. Except all that has happened for The Girl is that she spent three hours on the math portion, and proved that she is now past where she is expected to be at the end of 4th grade. There may be differentiation for the class in aggregate; we’re both waiting for more challenging work to come her way. (On the upside, at least she got to join the math team.)

And then today, I got the notice that STEP testing will begin next week. My reaction is only this: you have got to be kidding me.

What kills me, what absolutely kills me about this is that STEP is actually a useful tool. It is a local assessment that tells The Girl where she needs to develop and hone in her literacy skills. It doesn’t necessarily tell her how to get there, but it does tell her what specific skills she needs to become a better reader. Although it is a standardized, normed assessment, STEP is not comparative or, ultimately, competitive.

But on top of this version of March madness, it’s just too much. It is TOO much. It’s like CPS decided that it couldn’t possibly use the only month in the school calendar that is without a holiday, break, or professional development day to you know, actually have school. We have a six-hour-and-20-minute instructional day; why not use it on, you know, actual instruction?

All this testing – to what end? A competition just for the sake of having a competition–much like the 1st grade girls who, to pass the time, form a club on the playground and exclude children at random, creating and enforcing their own code or hierarchy of greater than / less than.

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