Testing Our Limits

By Melissa Bollow Tempel

Illustrator: David McLimans

Illustration: David McLimans

I walked away from the rest of my class and over to the three computers in the corner of my classroom. Two of my 1st graders, Jasmine and Jayden, sat at their computers with their headphones off, waiting for me to reset their computers to Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test number 2.

“I got 162,” said Jasmine. “You got 142.”

“You did better than me,” replied Jayden with a frown.

Shelly sat at the third computer. “I don’t wanna do the computer test,” she pleaded. “Do I have to?”

In the past three years I have experienced unimaginable computer frustration. Don’t get me wrong: I treat my MacBook Pro like a third child, and I definitely use technology in the classroom to enhance teaching and learning. I’ve been accused of being in love with my iPhone, which serves as a timekeeper, meteorologist, and DJ in my classroom. And the opaque projector is an excellent, plastic transparency-free alternative to the overhead projector. Computers and technology have come such a long way in the past 20 years, and they hold a big place in the lives of this generation of students. Unfortunately, one use of technology is failing in my classroom: the rapidly increasing use of computers for testing.

Computerized testing, including the widely used MAP test, has infiltrated the public schools in Milwaukee and across the nation like an uncontrollable outbreak of lice, bringing with it a frightening future for public education. High-stakes standardized tests can be scored almost immediately via the internet, and testing companies can now easily link districts to their online data warehouses, which allows districts to quickly access test scores (which would be good if the tests were generating usable data). This system provides momentum to those who believe more tests should be given to “track progress” throughout the year. In my district this means that every classroom teacher tests students at the beginning, middle, and end of the year, administering four tests in math and reading each time.

Limited funding and fewer staff in our district, as in most urban public schools, creates even more of a problem because there are not enough adults to serve as proctors. Setting up these tests is a tedious, time-consuming job involving a web of long, nonsensical passwords and codes. Teachers are being mandated to use many hours of valuable instructional time and limited teacher planning time to complete these tasks. In schools like mine that don’t have a computer lab, teachers have only a few computers in their classrooms. We are asked to simultaneously teach while setting up and administering a few tests at a time, seriously compromising the quality of instruction we are able to deliver.

To illustrate the scenario, picture this: I have three computers on one side of the classroom, set apart from our learning area, so three children can take the test at one time. First I go to each computer and log in to the network using an assigned proctor name and password. Then I log in to the test application using a different random alphanumeric name and nine-digit password. Once in, I select the test the child needs to take, select the student’s name, then sit the child down at the computer to begin, making sure he or she has the headphones on properly. (Yes, one of my students took the test wearing the headphones attached to her neighbor’s computer. If I’m not watching carefully, others have taken the whole test without headphones on at all!) Then I hurry back to the rest of the class and continue teaching. When the child has a question, I have to go help. When the child is done taking the test, I have to go over and enter yet another proctor password to finish the test and start the process over for the next child. Part of the score is based on how long it takes a child to complete each question, so if the child has to use the bathroom I need to enter a code to pause the test. Each test takes about 20 minutes to complete; however, students do not finish at the same time, so I am going back and forth at three different times to enter the proctor password for the children and set up the next student. I’m doing all this while I attempt to teach a lesson, lead an activity, or help the rest of the class do their work. The alternative is to stop instruction altogether for a few days and give my students “busy work” while three students at a time take the tests. And have I mentioned that we have no art, music, or physical education teachers at our school, so I have no prep time?

Unfortunately, the issue of time wasting and misuse does not even scratch the surface of the computerized testing chaos. Computerized testing now starts with students as young as 4 years old. MAP test data are reviewed and used in the screening process for children for special education. Those already receiving special education services with IEPs are required to take the grade-level test regardless of their instructional level. In Milwaukee, all students attending 4-year-old kindergarten are required to take the district’s computerized test beginning their second week of school—ever. One of the literacy tests is 53 multiple-choice questions long, and to finish it students must select an answer for every question. After each testing session teachers report that students end up in tears. Most 4-year-olds cannot sit long enough to finish the whole test and need to be redirected to their chairs many times. District administration allows the test to be given one-on-one to kindergartners; however, pulling from the ever-shrinking list of support staff means pulling the only available staff, the English language learner teacher and the librarian, to help. This test creates a domino effect on the entire school.

Although our district’s administration believes these tests are given on a level playing field (because in this age of technology most children are supposedly exposed to computers at a young age), our primary students often come to school with little or no computer experience. In fact, many early childhood researchers believe that responsible parenting means little or no screen time for primary school children. As a result, young students click at random. One of my colleagues reported that she often witnesses students rubbing the mouse on their faces or on the computer screens. And this data is supposed to help guide our teaching?

Widening the Gap

The biggest injustice here is the technology gap that has a direct effect on the achievement gap. Students who have regular access to computers at home are clearly advantaged, from a testing standpoint, because they have a higher likelihood of being computer literate. Meanwhile, kids who don’t are being scored on both how to use the technology they have never had accessto in addition to what is in the content of the test. This imbalance creates an assessment that is less valid or invalid because it measures something beyond what it is supposed to, and it penalizes students for something that they are not supposed to be tested on.

At least two of my 1st graders, Jasmine and Jayden, have figured out how to click past the dog at the end of the test to see their score. Sadly, I cannot be in two places at once to prevent it, and as a result there is little doubt that these 6-year-olds are drawing conclusions about how “smart” they are based on deeply flawed tests. To complicate things further, the data from these computerized tests are used to determine which intervention classes students should be enrolled in—or in many cases, which classes they are forced to attend in place of engaging elective courses. This widens the achievement gap and perpetuates the racial and socioeconomic disparity between haves and have-nots.

Our district’s new plan to help students is heavily based on the MAP test results. In fact, at one inservice, the students with the lowest test scores were already entered into my account as my intervention group. My professional opinion had been replaced by the test scores. I was surprised to see Julia, one of my smartest, highest readers in the group (I suspect she got bored with the test and decided to click randomly). When I said that Julia was not in need of any extra help I was strongly advised by our school’s literacy coach (assigned to our school one day a week) not to remove her from the group because, based on her test scores, Julia needed interventions. Of course, I moved her anyway.

This form of testing has not replaced other tests. Quite the opposite: It’s given us the ability to give more tests. Milwaukee Public Schools has mandated that those scoring in the bottom 20 percent on the MAP test be given a biweekly Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) test to track their progress.

The new age of computerized high-stakes standardized testing is a frightening use of our advancing technology, but we can resist. Many parents see through the rhetoric and are choosing to opt their children out of standardized tests altogether, and a movement is brewing. Yong Zhao from the University of Oregon reports that a 6 percent opt-out rate is enough to invalidate standardized test results. However, that many opt-outs would also mean a school would not meet federal mandates for adequate yearly progress. Many involved in the opt-out movement feel that it’s worth potential negative repercussions.

As educators and parents, we need to be honest about how computerized testing serves to emphasize economic disparities. We can speak out about how it takes away valuable instructional time and returns little helpful information. We need to push district administrations to reevaluate the quality and usefulness of all computerized testing and demand other, more meaningful, forms of assessment. And we can urge our unions to support teachers and parents who challenge the inappropriate use of tests.

Unless we stand together, erroneous computer data and educational officials detached from the realities of teaching will continue to determine our students’ futures.

Melissa Bollow Tempel teaches 1st grade in the Milwaukee Public Schools. She co-edited Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability with Wayne Au. Her 1st- and 3rd-grade daughters have been opted out of standardized tests.