Welcome back to “7 Hidden Truths of Testing,” in which we examine the realities of standardized testing in Mississippi from the educator’s point of view. This is not filtered research from a corporation; it’s not a scientific study from a government agency. It’s just testimony from the people seeing it happen on the ground. My hope is that you find a perspective that better informs your views of public school operations.
Now, let’s have another inside look.
Truth #2: The testing experience for each student is widely inconsistent across the state.
When I asked educators how their districts carry out standardized testing, the most obvious takeaway was how different every school’s testing situation is.
Don’t get me wrong- assessment tailored to the specific needs of each school, by each school is great… if the assessment exists to help each school fine tune its own educational program.
***Spoiler alert***… that’s not what Mississippi’s standardized tests are for.
No, our state tests might be a quality assurance program, but they’re not designed to be personalized. These are the tests that generate numbers for the big comparisons. They supply ammunition for the legislature’s endless rants against the public school system and they provide a basis for determining how much funding each school is supposed to get. So they’d darn well better be comparing apples to apples.
When gathering information on how well school districts are doing their jobs, you want as level a playing field for comparison as possible. But since tests are no longer administered with pencil and paper, the lay of the playing field largely depends on the variety of technology resources of the districts and schools. This would provide fantastic data for a study on how technology upgrades affect test scores, but that’s not what’s being measured at all- the numbers are only supposed to reflect content area knowledge and skills. And studies have shown that test scores are affected by the testing environment.
Testing resources vary from district to district, and from school to school. Most schools at the elementary and middle school level have students take turns in computer labs with PC’s. But even those are wide-ranging; They could be new models bought last year; they could be clunkers from the early 2000’s. In schools where they have a “1 to 1” laptop initiative, their students take the tests on laptops. Other schools have their students take the test on iPads. Some schools use a mixture of the three systems to get the students checked off as quickly as possible. Turns out the playing field has lots of bumps and curves.
Sometimes, whole pockets of the playing field collapse into sinkholes. Just last week, school districts across the state experienced server errors during state testing. Students were kicked out of the system and made to wait until “computer problems” were fixed. For adolescents who have a finite attention span, this is something akin to judging a firefighter by how well he quenches a house ablaze, then cutting off the water and telling him to wait a moment while he watches the building burn.
Despite the fact teachers and students were told the system would save student responses to questions they’d already completed, in many cases it did not. According to one teacher I spoke with, one student had completed 40 out of 43 questions, and then was forced to start back over. If you’ve never seen an elementary-aged kid stressed out to the max over state testing, let me just cut to the chase for you: The amount of frustration and fatigue that girl experienced taking the test over again, ensured her score would not reflect her best first shot. None of her classmates’ scores would, either. But their teachers, their school will still be compared with schools elsewhere who experienced no delay.
And it’s not just server errors affecting the consistency of testing environments. What many administrators will never admit publicly is that they simply cannot control the school environment for the entire testing window to ensure consistency, from start to finish. Gone are the days of shutting down the entire school for the morning to ensure that every kid gets a quiet three hour window to concentrate.
Now, Mississippi schools rotate singular classes in and out of computer labs during a large testing window. For the majority of each school’s students, the show must go on. They must attend class. Test coordinators tell them to walk down the halls silently all day long, but how many weeks will they be able to keep a thousand students absolutely silent for seven hours a day?
…I’m sorry. That description was just my own school. Not every school experiences all the same testing setups, challenges, and setbacks as all the other schools.
When the results of the test come out, though, we’ll certainly all be lumped in together as if we do.
And that’s why you, the general public, are not supposed to know how inconsistent these tests are.
James Comans is an 8th grade science teacher in Southaven and contributor to MSEdBlog. His views are his own and do not represent the views of any other entity.