Multiple Choice: The normal schedule at your child’s school will be disrupted for several days while the school administers a standardized test to all students. You think the test is a pointless waste of time that could be better spent on classroom instruction. You listen with interest when another parent urges that you opt your child out of taking the standardized test. What is your best course of action if you want to support your child’s school
a. Keep your child home from school during testing days.
b. Opt your child out of taking the test and write a letter to the school’s principal explaining your action.
c. Discuss the issue with your child and jointly decide on a course of action.
d. Send your child to school to take the test.
Surprise! The correct answer is d. Read on to find out why.
This month public school students in Madison are for the first time taking the Badger Exam, the Common Core-aligned standardized test that has replaced the WKCE. But not all students. A relatively small but growing number of parents have opted their children out of taking the exam. It’s becoming a thing. While most of the opt-outers are just taking a pass on the Badger Exam, some of the more gung-ho parents are opting out of all of the standardized tests that Madison students take.
Opting out has been described as an act of civil disobedience to protest schools’ over-reliance on high-stakes standardized tests. The more enthusiastic opt-outers see the tests as a cash-cow for big corporate interests like Pearson, who are happy to drain the budgets of strapped school districts with bloated testing charges. The also contend that the tests deliberately judge students by unrealistically high standards as part of a scheme to label public schools as “failing” and so advance the interest of charter school operators, privatizers and other enemies of public education.
For opt-outers holding these views, there’s really no middle ground. The logic of their position compels that they reject the very notion of standardized tests and that they advocate for banishing the tests from our schools entirely. They may not be able to stop the tests on their own but they can stop their children from taking the tests. And so they do.
From my perspective as a School Board member in Madison, I have a different view. I think opting out of standardized tests is, generally speaking, a lousy idea. This puts me quite at odds with the engaged, pro-public schools families who are choosing the opt-out route. So I will try to explain my views.
The next part of this post describes the principal standardized tests administered in the Madison school district. I then explain the ways in which the results of standardized tests can be valuable. My take on the principal pro-opt-out arguments comes next, followed by some concluding thoughts.
STANDARDIZED TESTS IN MADISON
The principal standardized tests given in Madison are the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) and the WKCE, which has been supplanted this year by the new Badger Exam. (There are other standardized tests that are given less universally, but this post is already long enough so I won’t discuss the others here.) The school district administers the MAP test because we choose to and the WKCE and Badger Exam because we have to.
Measures of Academic Progress (MAP)
MAP consists of reading, language usage and math assessments that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The computer-based tests are taken by our students in third through eighth grade. Each part of the test typically takes a little less than an hour, though the tests are not timed.
Our students take the MAP three times each year, in fall, winter and spring. The tests measure a student’s academic progress compared to the average student at that grade level. By comparing a student’s results from the fall and spring, we can estimate how much the student has learned over the course of the school year.
The school district looks at MAP results to get a sense of how individual schools and the district as a whole are doing on our goal that every student be on track to graduate. Our 2013-14 Annual Report included a number of progress indicators that were based on MAP results. School Improvement Plans for elementary and middle schools typically identify improvement goals expressed in terms of MAP performance.
Prior to this year, the state-mandated standardized test was the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE). Students from third through eighth grade, plus tenth grade took the test in English, language arts and math each fall. Students in fourth, eighth and tenth grade took WKCE tests in science and social studies as well. The school and school district report cards issued by DPI are based primarily on WKCE results.
This is the first year for the Badger Exam, which is the Wisconsin version of the Smarter Balanced assessment, a new standardized test in English language arts and math for grades three through eight that is aligned with the Common Core State Standards. The goals of the computer-based test are said to be to challenge students with multiple choice questions, extended response, technology-enhanced items, and performance tasks intended to test students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills in both English language arts and math.
The Badger Exam roll-out has been rocky. The delivery of the test was delayed and then on March 10, DPI announced that it was eliminating the English Language Arts Classroom Activity and the Performance Task for this year. Bills are working their way through the state legislature to cancel DPI’s school and school district report cards for this year, because of uncertainty about the reliability of the Badger Exam results upon which the reports would be based.
MMSD has stated that it will deemphasize this year’s Badger Exam results as well. According to a FAQ on the test:
The Madison Metropolitan School District believes that any results from the first year of implementing an assessment should not be used for high stakes decisions. The first year of an assessment often has challenges with implementation and understanding the nuances of administration that may cause data that is not truly reflective of student achievement. These results will not be used for decisions about students, staff, programs or schools.
THE CASE FOR THE TESTS
Monitoring Progress Systemwide
A key goal of the school district is that all students have access to a consistent, standards-based core instructional program that systematically and seamlessly provides them with the knowledge and skills necessary for full participation in college, the workplace and the community. This goal, which spans the 14 years a student can spend in our schools from pre-K through high school, requires the identification of the knowledge and skills that our students are expected to master at each grade and in each class. The Common Core State Standards anchor this work.
We need to be able to monitor how well this strategy is working by checking on the knowledge and skills acquisition of students in every grade, because students won’t be able to flourish in fifth grade if they didn’t master what we expect them to learn in fourth grade.
In large part, we rely on MAP test results to check our students’ progress. This illustrates an important point. It is the aggregate results on standardized tests, rather than the scores of individual students, that are most useful. We want to see how our students – and identified subgroups of students – are doing overall, how they are doing in particular grades, and how they are doing in particular schools.
If the test results show problem areas, then those become areas of focus. If some schools are showing particularly positive results, then we want to identify what they are doing right so that their success can be replicated in other schools.
For this sort of system-wide analysis to be possible, we have to have some common basis for measurement and comparison. That is the role of the standardized test. Without this kind of common calibration, it becomes much harder to measure, monitor and compare the progress made by students.
Test scores are not the be-all and end-all of school performance, of course. We also need to look closely at school climate and at the extent to which our students are receiving a well-rounded education. But MAP results are a critical component of how we assess our performance as a school district.
In addition, aggregate test results can identify disparities in performance among student groups and help us identify what groups of students we are not serving well. In large part, our achievement gaps are measured by differences in aggregate performance on tests like the WKCE. Heightened public awareness of our achievement gap was kick-started when Kaleem Caire started requesting that MMSD provide the Urban League with detailed data on student performance back in 2008. Much of the data was derived from the results of standardized tests. Half of the education measures identified in the Race to Equity report are based on standardized tests.
The simple fact is that abandoning standardized tests would be a major disservice to those students that the school district is not serving well, because it would make it easier to explain things away and paper things over. I have never heard anyone suggest that a solution to our achievement gap is to stop measuring it.
Reporting to the Community
Finally, and I understand that this is more controversial, I think there is value in having all students in the state take a standardized test like (though preferably better than) the WKCE. The results play a key role in the school and school district report cards prepared by DPI.
I have issues with the ways in which the report card scores are tabulated – which you can read about here – but I think there is value in having a way to compare the performance of schools and school districts. Most folks agree. According to the most recent Marquette Law School poll, “Voters strongly support continuing federally required testing in math and English, by 80 percent to 17 percent.”
Here it is particularly important to distinguish between the test results themselves and the pernicious uses to which they can be put. Republican legislators want to label as “failing” schools that earn unimpressive report card scores and some seek to impose penalties on schools with low grades. This is misguided. It may also be part of a broader strategy to undermine public education in the state, a strategy that seems to explain much of the Republican agenda on education.
But the fact remains that it is useful to have some consistent set of assessments by which some aspects of school performance can be measured and compared in a reasonably objective manner. I think school districts owe it to the public that supplies their funding to provide this basic sort of accountability measure.
RESPONDING TO OPT-OUT ARGUMENTS
What about the arguments against standardized tests? Here is how I think they stack up from a Madison perspective.
1. The stakes are too high. School funding and teacher evaluations should not be based exclusively on the results of standardized tests. Agreed. But that’s not how things work in Madison. Generally low test results are one of the factors that go into identifying our more high-needs schools, but they tend to get more attention and resources rather than less. Unexpectedly low test results for a particular class should prompt the teacher and principal to think about the effectiveness of the teaching strategies that are being employed, but they do not affect the teacher’s pay or by themselves result in any sort of adverse employment action. Right now in Madison there simply aren’t any high-stakes consequences attached to standardized test results.
2. An inordinate emphasis on standardized test results leads to narrowing the school curriculum to only those subjects that are tested. I am sure that there are school districts where this is the case. Madison is not one of them. One of our principal Strategic Framework goals is a well-rounded curriculum, measured by enrollment in music, art, foreign language and other classes that are not WKCE subjects. This goal is specifically intended as a counterweight to our goal of high academic achievement, which unavoidably relies on standardized test results.
3. Standardized tests do not measure the whole child. Nope, they don’t. The tests are oblivious to a child’s creativity, resiliency, kindness, emotional maturity, perseverance, courage, and other qualities that we seek to nurture in all our children. But that isn’t a shortcoming of the tests; it is a reason to avoid judging and labeling children exclusively on the basis of test results. It is just as misguided to criticize a math test for not measuring, say, resiliency as it is consider it a shortcoming of a lawn mower that it won’t roast a chicken. That’s not what it’s designed to do.
4. The tests are racially biased. The makers of the tests will argue that they’re not, and will back up their claims with a whole host of studies. But there is no question that, as a group, students of color tend to score lower than white students and students in poverty tend to score lower than students who are not economically disadvantaged. What is the significance to draw from this? As I write above, it doesn’t do the low-performing groups of students any favors to do away with the tests. That’s like attacking obesity by eliminating scales. It is up to the school district to investigate possible causes of the disparities and implement smart strategies to reduce them.
5. The tests take too much time away from classroom instruction. Well, yes, this is a valid point. Time spent administering standardized tests is time taken away from instruction. And because things don’t always work out as smoothly as we’d like, there will be times when some students’ learning will be compromised because other students are taking tests. It’s a trade-off. We have to think that the benefits we derive from our students taking a standardized test are worth the price we pay in lost instructional time. From what I can tell, the trade-off is worth it for the MAP. We don’t have a choice as far as the WKCE and Badger Exam are concerned. But when we do have a choice, we should always keep in mind this genuine cost and demand that clear and tangible benefits of any standardized test outweigh this and any other costs.
6. Businesses make money on the tests they sell us. Some have criticized test-making juggernaut Pearson and other companies for making lots of money on the tests they sell to school districts. This doesn’t seem persuasive to me. Standardized tests are either worth their cost or they are not. If they are, then it is not a concern to me that some corporation may profit from selling them to us.
SO, WHAT’S A PARENT TO DO?
There have been a lot of problems with the Badger Exam, which may prompt some parents to think about opting their kids out of it. But don’t think that this will strike a blow against high-stakes tests. This initial Badger Exam is looking like it will be about as low-stakes as a test can get. The legislature is likely to pass a law precluding DPI from issuing school report cards incorporating the test results and MMSD has announced that the district won’t use results from the test for any decisions about students, staff, programs or schools.
Opting out of this particular test won’t come at much cost but it is also not likely to provide much benefit. Taking a pass on the test won’t keep it from being administered or somehow restore more time for classroom instruction. It will mean one fewer student’s learning will be measured and will make whatever information the test provides that much less reliable.
In future years the stakes will increase for the Badger Exam or whatever may take its place, since DPI will be back to issuing school report cards based primarily on the test results. Opting out may have more consequences as well.
The most tangible consequence is that if too many students in any demographic category fail to take the test, DPI deducts five points from the school’s report card. East High got docked five points for insufficient test participation and another five points for excessive absenteeism on its 2013-14 report card. This knocked the school down from the “meets expectations” to “meets few expectations” category.
This matters, whether we want it to or not. Families considering a move to Madison will research the schools and will shy away from neighborhoods that are served by a high school that “meets few expectations.” Go ahead and try to explain to them that a school’s low report card score was simply a consequence of engaged parents opting out of the state-mandated standardized test in order to register their opposition to the flawed political narrative that public schools are failing.
Opting out of the Badger Exam is currently getting all the attention, but the more gung-ho opt-outers urge parents to take a pass on MAP tests as well. Tim Slekar, dean of the School of Education at Edgewood College and perhaps the most uninhibited of the opt-out advocates, has written: “And the MAP is not a good test either. It’s still high stakes. It still is racially biased. And it still takes assessment away from the teacher. There is no better assessment than the assessment done by teachers (authentically) and without stakes. SCRAP THE MAP.”
Ignore this. Parents should not opt their children out of the MAP test. That won’t accomplish anything but frustrate the school district’s assessment of our own performance and blur our vision of where we should be focusing our improvement efforts. There are plenty of ways to support our public schools but this isn’t one of them.