Sunday, September 21st, 2014

Readers sound off on time taken for mandated tests

Students wave with answers in Elva Cantu's math class at Austin's Graham Elementary in November 2011 (Photo: Ralph Barrera, Austin American-Statesman).
Students wave with answers in Elva Cantu's math class at Austin's Graham Elementary in November 2011 (Photo: Ralph Barrera, Austin American-Statesman).

Several readers wrote us about our rating as False a claim by former state Sen. Ted Lyons that most Texas schools spend 45 days a year on mandated testing. Let’s empty the mailbag.

These emails are edited for style and brevity.

An Austin reader wrote: "Students in Texas public schools may not spend 45 days taking mandated tests, but" one "would... find almost 100 percent agreement among teachers that quality of education is compromised significantly by forcing them to allocate well over 45 days preparing for and actually taking these tests. Teachers, the only true experts of teaching, would rather apply their own lesson plans, inspiring creativity and analysis within a reactive environment, than to waste time preparing students to make passing grades on standardized tests."

One reader said that while our conclusions on days spent testing seem correct, "it would be good for people to know how much time is spent not just on testing itself but the accelerated instruction (test prep) between retakes. My daughter who receives special education services might very well be one of those kids who has to retake all the exams when she is in 9th grade next year. You only counted one retake per test. What if she needs another?  On more than one test? You also should have included the benchmarking in that 10-day max figure too. And aaaaalllll that test prep before and accelerated instruction after. All that instead of simply tutoring to help her master the concepts.  Real tutoring and test prep are two different things. So, while there may not be 45 days dedicated to actual testing, I am very sure that testing and all that it entails will take up way more of that 180 days than it should."

Another reader said we left out mention of "days wasted while kids in grades other than yours test. This isn't really an issue in the elementary grades, but at least here in Hutto, for the middle and high school, your kids end up watching movies, or killing time in the cafeteria, or going on wasteful field trips (as happened a few years ago) so that the school is quiet for the test takers.  This happens to be a big pet peeve of mine, especially in light of the stringent attendance policies in place for the schools to get paid for "chair time." As a parent, I am not allowed to take my kids out of school for family events other than sickness or death, yet the school can waste my kids' time watching movies so that kids in classrooms with closed doors can have more quiet. Makes no sense to me. I'm sure you won't find this wasted time in any official schedules, but it is a reality. So in your calculations of days spent on testing, you really should count days for all grades within the building testing."

Another: "Your findings on the time spent on testing is not what I've observed in our local school. The days spent on ‘benchmark’ tests, practice tests, test-taking strategies takes around 38 days, I believe is the number that our local superintendent told us at a meeting. While the state may not require that all these extra days be used for getting ready for the tests, the fact is, with all the pressure to perform, it is the rare school that doesn't do it.

"Another thing not mentioned is the stress on these testing days. Even if your grade isn't being tested, schedules are disrupted, everyone must be extra quiet, and every single bulletin board is covered over or taken down, lest someone find an answer to a question on it. Now, honestly, how in the hell are they going to find an answer to a question by passing by the bulletin board that has pictures of all the children who have been given awards during the year? But TEA rules mandate that EVERY SINGLE bulletin board be covered or taken down. The library even has to take books out of the ‘show windows.’ The atmosphere is scary, and younger and more sensitive children really suffer for it." (Editor's note: TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe told us by email that school districts might be more restrictive than the agency requires. She passed along the relevant state rule, which states: "Bulletin boards and instructional displays that might aid students during testing must be covered or removed.")

Finally, a teacher advocate said that "you guys got too hung up on not being able to get a fixed number of benchmark (test days)--since there are 1,100 school districts and they all do these differently--and you fell hook, line and sinker for erroneous statements like benchmarks being only scheduled for two hours, that they don't take up the bulk of a day. That's pure bull... since I've seen how they schedule them at three Austin schools. The fact of the matter... is that an average school across four grades would--with a conservative estimate--have 24 days of benchmark tests, but with some overlapping, you could probably knock that number down to half or more. That alone puts you in the range of the 45-day mark, being conservative. (without even counting all the other hodgepodges of tests)."