RACINE — Using standardized tests to measure the skills and academic performance of students has long been a requirement of public school districts.
But a review of the testing in the Racine Unified School District reveals that assessments required in the district’s elementary and middle schools goes beyond what is mandated by the state and federal government.
Unified states that the extra tests are encouraged by federal law and needed to accurately gauge progress and areas of improvement.
But the Racine Educational Association believes the sheer amount of testing required of students in certain grades has gotten excessive, and it wants to start a conversation with the administration, teachers, students and parents about better approaches.
To get an exact picture of testing in the district, the teachers’ union recently submitted an open records request to the district, seeking precise information on the time and resources devoted to testing and test preparation.
Some kind of standardized testing of public school students in Wisconsin has been required since at least the 1980s. Initially, the state and federal government only required students in certain grades to be tested, but in the past decade or so, some testing has been required or at the very least encouraged in every grade.
Today, the state requires students in 4-year-old kindergarten through second grade to take a single literacy screener. In grades 3-8, the state and federal government requires students be tested once a year in math and English language arts. All of the tests in grades K-8 are conducted on a computer. A very small percentage of students — those in dual language programs, English language learners, and students with severe learning disabilities — take different tests.
The state also requires high school students in grades 9-11 be tested at least once a year to prepare them for college entrance exams.
Unified follows those requirements, but also mandates additional testing: two more math and English screenings for students in kindergarten through second grade, and three more math and English screenings for students in grades 3-8.
For the district, the additional Measures of Academic Progress assessments, which can add between 50 minutes and 3 hours of testing per year depending on grade level, are an effective way to track student progress.
“One of the federal requirements of ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) is that we monitor progress,” said Jacquelyn Moga, Unified’s executive director of assessment.
The district used to only administer the MAP test twice a year. It started requiring a third session during the 2014-2015 school year.
Administering the test three times a year gives teachers better benchmarks of how they and their students are doing, especially since it provides results almost instantly, Moga said.
The district must wait until the following year to find out the results of the Wisconsin Forward exam. Although the third MAP exam is given close to the end of the school year, between late April and mid-May, it can provide information to teachers looking to plan their lessons for the following school year, Moga noted.
The test also adapts to each student’s level of learning, she added, giving a clear picture what students can do, not just what they can’t.
“They start at grade-level-like questions. Once they start answering questions, the assessment is going to go to lower-level questions if they are unable to answer the previous question correctly. It will continue to do that to get down to as low of a level that questions can go,” Moga said.
While periodic gauging of student progress is important, uniform exams — adaptive or not — may not always give a true picture of a student’s actual skills, REA President Angelina Cruz maintains.
While she believes screeners like the MAP test can be valuable, there are other ways to measure learning in the classroom. She also noted that ESSA encourages districts to study how much seat time is being devoted to such tests to see if adjustments should be made.
“It is a fallacy to believe that 100 percent of kids can gain 100 percent achievement on 100 percent of every tested academic area,” Cruz said. “We are dealing with human beings that are complex, and they bring to school different issues with them. They are not widgets.”
Starting a conversation
At a recent Unified School Board meeting, about a half-dozen teachers expressed frustration with amount of testing. Some said a lack of computer skills among students made the testing difficult, while others said it took away from needed instruction time.
Cruz said parents and taxpayers should also know the cost of such testing. The district’s 2016-17 budget includes $168,888 to pay the Northwest Evaluation Association, the entity that develops the MAP test.
“The whole purpose of the testing audit is to open up that conversation between the district and teachers and parents, and look at what is actually required, what is actually useful to teaching and learning, and where we can make reductions in things that are really impacting our kids in a way that is not physically, or emotionally or academically healthy,” Cruz said.
Once the union receives the testing audit, it hopes to hold a public forum to gain input about testing from the community.