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Bruno: I Sure Wish Teach Plus Had Included Science Tests

5843577306_06fd6132f7Last week's TeachPlus report on the amount of time students spend testing in different districts is a useful contribution to the discussion of the role of testing in schools.

Among other things, the study underscores how much of the burden of testing is self-imposed at the local level rather than directly mandated from the top.

Still, the report has at least one major limitation: it looks only at math and English-language arts tests.

This is an important limitation because while math and ELA tests comprise the majority of required testing, other tests can take up considerable school time as well.

The authors acknowledge that classroom-level tests administered at the teacher's discretion and tests for "special populations of students" (e.g., English learners) can substantially increase the amount of time students spend testing, but are not captured in their results. 

Read on to see what the authors fail to acknowledge, and why it matters.

Left unacknowledged is the relevance of subject-matter tests for subjects other than math or ELA. 

While states usually require far fewer tests in, say, science or history, such tests are nevertheless often required in at least some grade levels. And as with math and ELA, districts and schools may impose testing requirements far in excess of those imposed by the state.

So, for example, the Teach Plus report captures test time districts may choose to devote to the math and ELA  "formative" assessments offered by the Northwest Evaluation Association. It does not, however, capture time spent on the NWEA's widely-used "MAP for Science" test.

In fact, all three of the middle schools sites in which I've taught have required the administration of at least one district-wide benchmark assessment in science. These benchmarks are typically given at least twice a year and in grade levels not subject to state science testing requirements.

Precisely how much time such tests take up in aggregate - across subject areas and grade levels - is difficult to say, but is likely to be considerable.

By focusing only on math and ELA testing, the Teach Plus report skews the interpretation of its results in two ways, both of which will likely minimize the perceived "testing burden" in schools.

First and foremost, readers of the Teach Plus report will be likely to significantly underestimate the amount of time schools dedicate to testing because only some tests - namely, those for math and English-language arts - are considered.

It is not unreasonable to think that if all standardized tests were taken into account, time spent on testing could be double what is reported by Teach Plus.

Second, and more subtly, readers of the Teach Plus report will be likely to make more-favorable judgments about whether our current testing regime (or their local regime) is worthwhile.

This is because it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the "total" testing times presented in the report represent only tests measuring a fraction of the work schools are expected to do.

 Consider, for instance, the authors' reminder at the end of the report that even using the more-pessimistic teacher time estimates, "the average amount of testing does not exceed four percent of the academic year". 

Whether 4% of the school year is a reasonable amount of time to spend on standardized testing is a matter of judgment. Presumably, however, that judgment should be informed by what, exactly, those standardized tests measure.

And here it will be easy for a reader to forget that what we are discussing is not "using 4% of the  year to measure school or student progress", but rather "using 4% of the year to measure school or student progress in math or ELA".

Of course, one may still reasonably feel that 4% is a reasonable portion of the school year to dedicate to assessing math and ELA. But one might also feel that 4% is rather a lot of time to spend testing two subjects that represent (I suspect) well less than half of what we want students to be learning in school.

I can understand why Teach Plus would focus exclusively on math and ELA testing. Those are the tests that tend to dominate the debate, and they are the subjects for which there is probably the most nationwide uniformity in terms of federal testing mandates.

And the Teach Plus report also does a valuable service by highlighting often under-appreaciated local variations in testing practices.

Nevertheless, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that, for better or worse, "testing" is not a phenomenon limited to math and English-language arts. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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