New Procedures Could Ease Concerns About Standardized Tests

     This month, Alaska joined the growing list of states to be granted a waiver from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. This waiver business is welcome news for a lot of people. People like Joe Niichel. He’s got a son, Leif, just finishing up 5th grade at Mt. View Elementary.

     Listening to Niichel’s story, you can begin to see how standardized tests, which are the back bone of No Child Left Behind, are anything but. On the first day, students at Mt. View were allowed some extra time to finish up. But the following day, the tests were promptly picked up at the final bell.

     “The principal said, 'Hey, sorry but the testing ends when the school day ends.' But my daughter is eight, and she’s in third grade at Kaleidoscope and she’s also taking the SBAs. Herself and other students in her grade were allowed to stay until 5 pm. And I wanted to know why there were different rules for different schools for these standardized tests. I thought it was supposed to be standardized,” Niichel said.

     What the school day looks like during testing can be entirely unique to each student. The goal is to find out if students are measuring up, academically, while at the same time accommodating the needs of each student. That’s where the waters get a little murky.

     There’s no scheduled end for the test. But there are guidelines for how long it should take, and someone eventually has to decide when a student is no longer making progress toward completing a test. The concern for a parent like Joe Niichel is that the quality of a school is based on how well it performs on a test. But if the standards for how you get to take that test are up in the air, it can’t provide a very full or very true picture.

     And that’s a concern for administrators like Tim Vlasak, too. He’s the Director of Assessment and Federal Programs for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

     “There’s so many things, when you tie things down to those three days, that it’s important to never rely on one piece of information.”

      So, it’s really a matter of semantics. Tests aren’t actually standardized at all. They are standards-based assessments. The SBAs. It’s a subtle, but distinct difference.

     “So they look for specific information and the ability of students to be successful with that information, and it’s based on some standard; some objective,” Vlasak said.

     The ambiguity in all of this is one of the reasons Alaska is one of forty states, plus the District of Columbia, to apply for and receive a waiver from No Child Left Behind.

     “By granting the waiver, we have an opportunity to move away from so much emphasis just on testing,” said Erik McCormick, Director of Assessment, Accountability and Information Management at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

     Under that federal law, those tests are pretty much the only measuring stick for how well a school is performing. That is, how proficient a school’s students are at hitting certain benchmarks for progress. The measurement was done by something called AYP, annual yearly progress. With the waiver, schools will be measured not just on whether or not they hit those benchmarks, but how much progress was made from year to year. That wasn’t the case before.

     “The growth is something we wanted in the original AYP that they denied. At the time we first applied for our new accountability system, they weren’t ready yet to consider growth models,” McCormick said.

     The time limits for testing is one of several issues that come up every year. But looking ahead, the waiver from No Child Left Behind will possibly reduce the impact of a single measure of progress like the SBAs.

     And new testing should also help put an end to the discrepancies experienced by Joe Niichel’s kids.  After next year, schools around the state will begin testing on computers. The problem of determining progress will be solved, since those tests will be more adaptive.

     “If the kid is hitting and they’re having positive results with some of the higher difficulty items, they move on to even higher difficulty items. And on the opposite end, if it’s a kid that’s struggling a little bit, the test is adjusted to their skill level. One of the benefits to that is the test could be shorter in that it picks up pretty quickly where the kid’s strengths and weaknesses are,” McCormick said.

     For Joe Niichel, it’s a step in the right direction.

     “I hope that some of the bureaucracy gets left behind and they make some common sense decisions, because my son will be taking this next year as will every other child in this district, and of course it will continue on through high school where it becomes even more important in things like scholarships, grades; a lot of that stuff will become important and will also be the ruler which he gets judged by. And so it’s only fair that they make the point to do this better every year.”