Approximately 480,000 standardized tests were administered to students in the Milwaukee Public Schools this year, despite a decision by the School Board to cut in half the number of kindergarten children tested.
The tests have varying impacts on curricula, school budgets, and the channeling of students into special programs. For ex ample, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) given to elementary school children and the Competency Tests given to high school students help to determine which students are placed in remedial classes and programs. Other tests, such as the TAP tests given in the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades have no evident purpose or effect, with the exception of costing several thousand dollars and consuming a couple of days of instruction.
A closer look at who takes the standardized tests reveals that students who attend schools that have higher concentrations of poor and black students are likely to take two to three times as many standardized tests as those students who attend schools which are more affluent and more white.
Over Testing “At-Risk” kids
The policy of over-testing “low achievers” and “at-risk” students is partially a result of the pressures by poor and minority communities for great accountability. Justifiably concerned about the under edu cation of their children, poor and black parents see standardized testing as one way they can find out if their children are being educated. Unfortunately, while test scores may serve as warning signs that inequity is rampant in the schools, they have not been as helpful in actual school improvement.
The principal reason, however, that test score mania continues to dominate our school system is that it is deeply woven into the ideology of our competitive culture and the hierarchical nature of our society. The gatekeeping and tracking functions of standardized tests, starting at the earliest levels, reinforce and help to reproduce the inequities in our society.
Instead of forcing reluctant school systems to improve the education of poor and minority students, concern over test scores has channeled effective school plans into meaningless number games and has consumed large chunks of the school day with practice tests and test-like activities. The development of more accurate and useful assessment measures has for the most part been ignored. The emphasis on curricula which is relevant .to the lives of the students and evokes higher level thinking skills has been down played.
A critical examination of school testing should look carefully at the function each test serves. There are three main purposes for testing in our society: accountability, gatekeeping and diagnosis. Currently, in MPS and in most other school systems, the emphasis is on the first two. State legislators, superintendents and building principals often feel that the only “reliable” measure of success in a school is test scores. Thus we find state legislators writing laws such as the P-5 legislation which helps narrow the education of poor children to test-driven curriculum. We find building principals volunteering to test their students with several tests every year, subjecting them to even more tests than are required by state standards. Fred Newmann, of the Center for Effective Secpndary Schools in Madison, says that the need for accountability could be more efficiently met – with less damage to the curriculum and the students – through scientific sampling on a random basis. Such an approach would ensure that only a very small percentage of students would need to be tested to provide results which are just as reliable and valid as when every child is tested. The results could still be reported on an aggregated basis so the community could see how students of both genders and different nationalities and social classes are doing.
The Gatekeeping Function
The gatekeeping function is no doubt the least overt, but potentially most potent purpose for testing. While this ‘function is obvious in highly competitive professional and employment tests, few people realize the similar role much test ing in school plays.
During School Board discussions about reducing the amount of kindergarten testing, it was revealed that one purpose of the Metropolitan Readiness Tests (MRT) given to kindergarteners is to help determine who gets into 3rd grade Gifted and Talented Gold Meier Specialty School. Similarly, the results of the second grade ITBS are one admission criterion for Program for the Academically Talented (PAT) classes in middle school as well as at Morse Gifted and Talented Middle School. In most high schools, students who fail reading, language or math competency tests are often placed in a “competency class” where they are subjected to a boring remedial curriculum geared to passing these tests while their classmates can take more engaging, stimulating courses.
Another important series of tests that also perform a gatekeeping function are the end of section and end of book tests given to kindergarten through eighth grade students as part of the basal reading pro gram. (These tests not included in the number estimates in this article or in the accompanying chart.) For the past eight years MPS teachers have used the Scott, Foresman readers, which require students to take five or more of these tests per year, depending on their reading levels. Children are often placed in reading (ability) groups and/or retained on the basis of these test results. These multiple choice, textbook company-produced “objective referenced” tests are extremely skills oriented and have been criticized for not accurately assessing a child’s reading ability. This year’s and last year’s Reading Textbook Adoption committee recognized this problem and recommended to the board that, “unit tests and end-of-book tests be optional and be used for diagnostic purposes only” and that the “testing program consist of comprehension assessments for end of level and end of year evaluation.”
Unfortunately the one purpose of testing that has the most validity – that of diagnosis – has the least to do with the over quarter of a million tests that are given to MPS students. Norm referenced tests have little effect on the school curriculum, measure a very narrow range of cognitive ,skills, and are inherently incapable of al lowing the student to demonstrate the full range of his or her abilities The criterion referenced tests used in P-5 schools also measure narrow ranges of knowledge and fail to focus assessment (and thus instruction) on performance criteria or students’ ability to show through practice that they can do something.’
Tests, Tests, and More Tests
The norm-referenced standardized tests that are given to MPS students range from the Metropolitan Readiness Test which is administered to all kindergarten students in Chapter I and P-5 schools to the four Competency Tests which are administered to eighth and ninth graders and senior high school students who have failed the tests. In between these two tests which respectively greet and bid farewell to most Milwaukee students, lie many more tests, including the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, given to all 2nd, 5th and 7th graders, DPI’s third grade reading test, MPS’s 3rd grade objective referenced language tests, the Differential Aptitude Tests (DAT) given to all 8th graders, the PACT+ given to all 10th graders, and the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP) given to all 9th, 10th, and 11th graders.
In addition to the above tests, certain schools are forced to give their students additional tests because of guidelines of MPS interpretation of guidelines from the state and federal government. Sµch guide lines ensure that children enrolled in special at-risk programs or in.schools that are recipients of special state funding will take two to three times more tests as students in schools not participating in such programs.
The P-5 state legislation which was originally enacted at the request of community leaders concerned about inequities has become the cause of a dramatic increase in testing for poor, black and Hispanic children in the P-5 schools. The P-5 schools have particularly low achievement scores and thus receive additional state aids. They must give all the aforementioned tests and in addition must administer the battery of Iowa Tests, of Basic Skills to their 1st graders and a host of pre and post criterion reference’d tests in language, reading, science and social studies in 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. Mary Zimmerman, a 3rd grader teacher from Victor Berger, exclaimed before a school board committee last winter that, “I am no longer a third grade teacher, I am a third grade tester.” She pointed out that in addition to the ten standardized tests she must give her children, she also has to administer the criterion referenced end-of-section and end-of-book reading ,tests which accompany the basal reader. For a third grader reading on level that is an additional six tests. Other criterion referenced tests – such as the end of chapter tests in math, science and social studies – may raise the number of norm referenced or criterion referenced standardized tests that a 3rd grader in that school takes to three or four dozen. The MTEA and the Milwaukee Board of School Directors are now supporting efforts in the state legislature to amend the P-5 legislation to eliminate this additional testing burden.
Another system wide testing practice that increases the testing burden on poor and minority students is the regular testing of students who are in special state or federal programs. Those students in the
Chapter I programs and those considered “At-Risk” in middle and senior high school take additional tests at various times throughout the year. These include the ITBS for elementary school children and the 3 R’s test in 7th, 8th, 9th and 11th grades.
The federally funded Chapter I program operates in 53 of the city’s 105 elementary schools. Those students eligible for Chapter I services are tested each year us ing ITBS. Chapter I schools with extremely poor student populations (over 75% eligible for free lunch) can become a “School Wide Chapter One Project,” which means all the students in the school, not just those eligible for Chapter I services, must be tested in all grades. Chapter I regulations require assessment procedures, but given the lack of initiative to find alternatives in the past in MPS, standardized tests are almost exclusively used.
Finally the state occasionally conducts sample testing or does pilot testing of new tests which means more exams for certain students. If Governor Thompson gets his way, the testing load will be increased through the addition of a standardized reading and math test of all eighth graders in the state.
Nationwide the use of standardized tests is widespread, but increasingly they have come under criticism. Several state legislatures have taken steps to ban or reduce tests for young children. Here in Milwaukee last December the School Board established an Assessment Task Force to “review testing in MPS, survey teachers, look at discontinuing standardized testing in K-2, review all testing relation ships to curriculum development, and recommend multiple measures of performance.”
The task force’s initial work includes the writing of a general position paper on the role of assessment in MPS, an examination of the extent and nature of current testing within MPS, and the development of a few pilot projects utilizing alternative forms of assessment. Matters the task force will attempt to investigate include: the effects of different testing policies on the curriculum and “ability” grouping of students within classrooms and schools.
The Whole Language Council, which consists of teachers and a few administrators from the the whole language schools and pilot programs, has also taken up the issue of assessment. They are investigating methods of assessing children’s read ing and language development in ways that are more meaningful than those in standardized tests.
Another positive development is taking place in the state legislature, where Assemblyperson Louis Fortis has proposed a statewide ban on group standardized tests in kindergarten through 2nd grade.
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing reported last year in a study on the extent of testing in the United States that a “testing explosion” had hit our nation’s schools. While Milwaukee Public Schools are just as engulfed in that explosion as any other school system across the country, there is reason to believe that the questioning of standardized testing that has begun here may take hold and lead to some significant reform.