Most Northwest Arkansas students will spend less time this year taking standardized tests than they have in the past, a fact that pleases many school administrators.
"I'm glad we'll spend less time on assessment," said Virginia Abernathy, the Rogers School District's assistant superintendent of elementary curriculum and instruction. "We need to spend more time on teaching and learning."
The President’s Principles
President Barack Obama last month outlined three basic principles he believes should apply to all tests used in U.S. public schools:
• Students should only take tests worth taking — tests that are high-quality, aimed at good instruction and make sure everybody is on track.
• Tests shouldn’t crowd out teaching and learning, but rather enhance teaching and learning.
• Tests should be just one source of information, used alongside classroom work and surveys and other factors to give an all-around look at how students and schools are doing.
Source: Staff report
Here’s a look at the standardized tests being given in Arkansas schools:
• Qualls Early Learning Inventory is given to kindergarten students to get a “snapshot” of each child’s skills.
• Iowa Assessments are administered to students in grades one and two. They are norm-referenced tests covering reading comprehension and mathematics problem solving. Norm-referenced testing measures a student’s performance compared to a nationwide group of students.
• National Assessment of Educational Progress is administered periodically to a sample of students at grades four, eight and 12 in core subjects. It is the only nationally representative, continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do.
• English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century measures the language development of English language learners.
• ACT and ACT Aspire are the new end-of-year assessments to be administered to 11th graders (the ACT) and third- through 10th-graders (ACT Aspire).
Source: Staff report
The state's switch in assessment tools this year from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers -- commonly known as PARCC -- to the ACT and ACT Aspire exams accounts for much of the testing time reduction.
Whereas PARCC tests took up more than 10 hours of a student's time, the ACT Aspire will take less than five hours. That could be good or bad, said Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas.
"It depends on the quality of the data we get back," McKenzie said. "If the doctor is going to get me in and out of his office in 10 minutes, that's fantastic, unless I really need to get some tests done to find out what's going on with me."
A recent study of the nation's big-city school districts showed the average amount of testing time devoted to mandated tests among eighth-graders last school year was about 4.2 days, or 2.3 percent of school time. Eighth grade was the level in which testing time was the highest. The study counted only that time spent on required tests and did not count sample, optional or special-population testing, according to the report by the Council of the Great City Schools.
President Barack Obama expressed concern about that finding. Last month he called for capping standardized testing at 2 percent of classroom time.
"Learning is about so much more than just filling in the right bubble," Obama said in a video released on Facebook. "So we're going to work with states, school districts, teachers and parents to make sure that we're not obsessing about testing."
Some school districts already have taken steps to limit testing. The Tulsa (Okla.) School District announced in August it would reduce the time its students spend on district-required tests from a total of 134 hours across all grade levels to about 62 hours -- a cut of 54 percent.
Tulsa accomplished this by reducing the frequency of some tests, eliminating one entirely and removing a district requirement to implement others, according to a district news release.
Tulsa parents and teachers had made clear the district was requiring too many tests, according to Superintendent Deborah Gist.
"Assessments are an extremely important tool for teaching and learning, yet we must make sure that the way in which we monitor progress through assessments is as focused and streamlined as possible," Gist was quoted as saying in the release.
In Arkansas, the online PARCC tests were given to students in grades three through 12 last spring for the first and only time. They replaced the state's Benchmark and end-of-course exams and were developed by a coalition of states based on Common Core State Standards.
Arkansas decided to replace PARCC this school year with the ACT college entrance exam for high school juniors and the ACT Aspire tests for students in grades three through eight. ACT Aspire covers English, reading, writing, math and science.
The PARCC tests received mixed reviews from educators. Many complained the testing, which was spread over two testing periods in March and May, diverted too much time from regular instruction. Hassles associated with scheduling computer time and testing proctors caused additional frustrations.
"The bane of our existence with PARCC was scheduling the make-up tests," said Karen Compton, assessment and data management director for the Bentonville School District.
Compton described preparation for PARCC last year as "a three-ring circus," but said the run-up to ACT Aspire has been wonderful.
"I hope we stay with this," she said.
Students weren't all that thrilled with PARCC either, said Noah Sparks, an eighth-grader at Bentonville's Washington Junior High School. Noah, 13, said he's happy to see PARCC go.
"There were a few kids who liked it, but most of us didn't," Noah said.
Noah said while he understands the importance of standardized tests, he believes they could be improved.
"Sometimes they seem kind of long. Longer than they need to be," he said.
Northwest Arkansas students take a variety of other standardized tests throughout their school years -- some mandated by the government, others not.
Several districts use the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP tests, periodically throughout the school year to gauge how much students are learning. Bentonville administers MAP tests in grades kindergarten through nine in math and reading three times per year, Compton said. Rogers schools follow a similar practice. Each MAP test takes an hour.
"Those help guide our instruction to measure where our kids are and how they're progressing," Abernathy said.
McKenzie likes MAP tests because they can show growth over the course of a school year for both high-performing and low-performing students. MAP tests also have a way of boosting teacher morale, she said.
"With MAP data, you see where (students) started in the fall and where they ended up in the spring," McKenzie said. "That's the time you worked with that student. And when you see a big percentage of your kids beat the national percentage for growth, that's so fantastic. That's so motivating."
High-quality assessments are important, but it's also important to know how to use the data that comes from them. That's where some teachers fall short, McKenzie said.
"Most teachers are not in teaching because they want to work with data. They want to work with kids," she said.
Dana Mays, a Washington Junior High School seventh-grader, is in her first year in a traditional school after years of home-schooling. She said she enjoyed taking the MAP test for the first time earlier this year.
Tests stress her out a bit because she wants to do well, but she's not convinced they are a measure of the test-taker's intelligence.
"If you fail, it's either because you weren't prepared or you were nervous," said Dana, 12. "That doesn't mean you're dumb."
NW News on 11/22/2015