From the Daily: Testing Action Plan a good (M-)STEP

Monday, November 9, 2015 - 7:56pm

President Barack Obama's Testing Action Plan calls for a reduction in time students spend taking standardized tests.

President Barack Obama's Testing Action Plan calls for a reduction in time students spend taking standardized tests. Buy this photo
Jackie Thomas/Daily

 

A solution to fix standardized testing practices has recently bubbled up. On Oct. 24, the Obama administration admitted it had pushed too far in holding state schools accountable based on their students’ standardized test scores. In light of this acknowledgment, the administration called on Congress to include specific measures that address the overemphasis on standardized testing in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — a bill previously termed No Child Left Behind. Two different versions of the ESEA were reauthorized in July by both the House and the Senate, and the fate of the bill lies in the two chambers’ ability to compromise.

As part of Obama’s Testing Action Plan, which accompanied this announcement, by January 2016, the Department of Education will release a guidance plan for all states and districts detailing how to assess what standardized test practices will be fair, valid and efficient. These developments are especially compelling in the context of the disagreements surrounding the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, the new state-required standardized test that replaced the 44-year-old MEAP. The recently released and abysmally low M-STEP results indicate there are significant issues with the exam. To set Michigan students up for successful academic futures, the Michigan Legislature should use the results of this year’s M-STEP, combined with the guidelines set in the Testing Action Plan, to revise this new state-required test, and other state legislatures should follow suit.

Unlike the MEAP, the M-STEP is administered in the spring, which is advantageous to students because it tests them on material they just learned, rather than testing them on material they learned three months ago the previous spring. Another promising attribute is that the M-STEP aimed to incorporate Common Core standards by allowing schools to conduct the test online and including short-answer questions, in contrast to the MEAP, which only used multiple choice. These factors should have combined to create a “better” standardized test, but as Michigan students’ unbelievably low test scores reveal, this new test is very far from perfect.

In a phone interview with The Michigan Daily, Pamela Davis-Kean, professor of psychology and education at the University, said she takes the results with a grain of salt. Davis-Kean explained that by the time the federal government had made clear in 2014 the Common Core standards that state tests had to meet, there was little time for the state to actually create the new test. Also concerning is that M-STEP removed time restrictions on students taking the test. Most students took eight to 11 hours to complete the test, and some took even longer. This large range inherently causes unreliability in the data. 

“In general, no matter what the results are, they’re not going to be indicative of anything, because it wasn’t pretested — it didn’t go through the usual validations that most tests go through,” Davis-Kean said.

Guidelines explained in the Testing Action Plan could help solve some of the problems faced in creating and administering the M-STEP. The plan states $403 million would go toward creating state assessments that align with college and career-readiness standards. A separate $25 million will go to projects that help states develop new assessment models that would allow them to “address pressing needs they have identified for developing and implementing their assessments.” Now with the resources of both more time and more money, the Michigan Department of Education is better prepared to improve the state-required test than it was at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.

Calling for the state to place a cap on the amount of time districts and schools can spend testing, which the Testing Action Plan does, would discourage redundancy in the different tests schools are currently administering, and would therefore serve as a good first step toward greater efficiency. By limiting the time spent on standardized tests, the Obama administration will allow teachers to offer more content-based instruction that hones in on skills such as reading comprehension, critical thinking and rhetorical analysis. Rather than requiring students to spend an excessive number of hours taking a myriad of standardized tests, a returned emphasis on class content will give students a greater breadth of knowledge and skills than teaching to a standardized test allows. 

The plan makes several other much-needed calls to action aimed at state governments, local districts and individual schools. One important aspect of the Testing Action Plan is that it encourages states to release test results in a timely manner and to make clear to parents, students, teachers and administrators what these results can be used for. More timely access to statewide and individual results can help students and teachers make changes to curricula and individualized teaching strategies for specific student needs. 

In addition, the Testing Action Plan emphasizes flexibility in teacher preparation for these tests. The plan states, “as in other areas, we believe that student learning as measured by assessment results should be a part, not the sole determinant, of determining the quality of a particular program.” Instead of implying that educators should be “teaching to a test,” the plan seems to suggest that teacher performance should not be assessed solely based upon their students’ testing performance. After over a decade of overemphasizing the importance of student test scores in teacher evaluations, this is a refreshing and critical point for the government to concede.

Evaluating the results of the M-STEP demonstrate the Testing Action Plan is a long-overdue call for states to not only place a cap on the amount of classroom time schools require of students, but also create a state-administered test that is more efficient and effective in measuring student achievement. The ideal test would encompass Common Core standards and would go through extensive preparatory procedures before being given to students as to avoid the mistakes of the M-STEP. Streamlined testing will produce useful data and allow for teachers to do what’s more important — focus on teaching content in the classroom.