Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Testing Limits

The Slice of Life Story Challenge is hosted by the talented team at Two Writing Teachers.
Link up your slice on Tuesdays all year. Thanks, Stacey, TaraDanaBetsyAnna and Beth.

It is difficult to write about testing. I have a lot of skin in this game. Daily skin. Skin I care about sits at desks, logs into computers, stands and watches: teenage skin and middle school skin and teacher skin and administrator skin. Still, Tuesdays, I confer with readers and writers over pieces students write in their journals. This last month of school choice reigns. Students are practicing writing--argument, analysis, response, narrative--they choose. Today, one student wrote about testing. This student's writing  reflects the pressures we all feel during testing season.

One of two pages of journal writing for this week; the student did eventually come to the conclusion
that though stressful, students need to stop worrying and consider that everything will be fine. 
My student called this "exam month" and he's not exaggerating.  While many students feel the pinch of End of Course Exams (EOCs) or Advanced Placement tests, our school has been testing students since October (state assessment retakes and district required progress monitoring among other tests this fall and winter).  Still, May wins the most test month even though, for my English classes,  our state-mandated reading and writing assessments finished in April.

Now students are taking state-constructed EOCs for core content classes (math, science, social studies), Advanced Placement exams--even college readiness exams like the PERT. A streamlined testing schedule went out in our emailed community bulletin recently.

The course of exams students must take looks simple. Many tests collar specific grade levels and do not affect all ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades on the same day. However, each day during any given week proctors are actually administering several tests as students who missed an exam one day must be scheduled for make up sessions within the testing window.  Today, students logged on to the computerized testing site to take exams for Biology and AP US Government and Geometry and Algebra I and Algebra II .-- the latter math exams were all make up sessions. These EOCs affect students' final grades and course credits, so opting out is not an option for students who want to earn a standard high school diploma. 

On any given day during a testing window, students, any where from 1 or 2 to 12 or 25 are testing.  Staying the curricular course and maintaining instructional momentum is challenging, especially if several of your students missed a testing session (or two) and now must make up tests. Under such conditions there are bound to be knowledge gaps if some students miss content and do not make it up.

The Florida legislature recently amended Senate Bill 7069 which will affect future testing. In February, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart  recommended cuts to testing; politicians have echoed the sentiment since. One line in the  statute calls for a limit on the number of hours students will be testing. According to SB 7069, the district may not schedule more than "5 percent of a student's total school hours ... to administer statewide,standardized assessments and district-required local assessments." Long over due, limits on testing time sound good. What does "5 percent of student's total school hours" really mean? Does it include time spent administering make up tests? Or time spent troubleshooting technology troubles?

Students have 7 classes that are 47 minutes each every day except Wednesday. Wednesday's classes are 37 minutes each. Each week students are in all of their classes for a total of 1, 575 minutes (or 26.25 hours). Students are in my English classroom 225 minutes a week (or 3.75 hours). The school year runs 36 weeks, so students' seat time in English class is 135 hours. Five percent of the total number of hours students are in my class works out to 6.75 hours: more than one week in English class of our 36 weeks together can, by law, be given over to test administration. Does that mean that each subject gets one week to test?

Are we sacrificing 7 weeks to tests? Have I really, by law, lost nearly an entire quarter of the school year? 

When I think about instructional hours and hours spent testing, I can't ignore instructional hours lost because of testing disruptions. Tests in my state are, by law, computer-based . In order to give computer-based tests students have to be moved into and out of classrooms that are equipped with technology.

To improve access to the required technology, our district built four new computer labs and provided the school with upwards of ten laptop carts. We have close to 3,500 students at school; you can imagine the access we need when all tenth The laptop carts, fortunately or unfortunately, are securely stored in teachers's closets and classrooms and can be used for authentic instructional purposes when not required for testing. In order to test, teachers must vacate their classrooms so that the securely stored laptops can be used for testing.

I know one teacher who will be in her room just two days for the entire month of May. How many hours is that? Such collateral damage may be too complex to simply count. Sure, if we teachers plan ahead and pack appropriate resources and supplies, minutes need not be wasted. The truth is, minutes, class periods, days are endangered as the testing schedule takes over.

Too much is too much.  As John Oliver said, "here comes the monkey." It's no wonder students are hitting their testing limits. Learning is too.