Controversial Testing Plan Goes to Milwaukee School Board

By Stephanie Walters

Later this year the Milwaukee School Board is scheduled to vote on a plan that would more than double the amount of standardized testing in the district.

The controversial plan has led to the formation of the Coalition for Responsible Assessment (CRA), a group of teachers, parents, and community organizations opposed to increased standardized testing.

The coalition is calling on the board to postpone its vote by at least one month and to keep the district’s current assessment plan in place for the current school year. It is also asking for a year-long dialogue among the central administration, school board, teachers, and parents on how best to develop an assessment system that will improve teaching and learning within the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

The coalition is organizing four community hearings this September and October to gather public input on testing and assessment in the district.

The call for increased testing surfaced last spring and initially included standardized tests for kindergarten and first-grade students. It immediately faced opposition from teachers and parents concerned about a massive increase in standardized testing – particularly since Milwaukee has been a national leader in alternative forms of evaluation such as student proficiencies and performance-based assessments.

The current plan has been modified slightly due to opposition. Nonetheless, it would still more than double the number of standardized tests that MPS students take during their K-12 years.

Critics are concerned, in part, because the district is calling its plan the Balanced Assessment System, when in fact it focuses on increasing standardized testing and downplays alternative forms of assessment.

“We need to make sure that as a community we are doing what is best for kids,” said Betty Smith, director of Milwaukee Catalyst, a community-based organization dedicated to education reform. “I think a balanced assessment system is right on target, but we have to be clear on what’s best for our kids in MPS. We can’t be pushed into creating something that we will realize 10 years from now is bad for kids and their learning.”

Kelley Dawson, a fourth grade bilingual teacher and a coalition member, echoed Smith’s concerns. “The current assessment system is balanced,” she said. “We administer standardized assessments, and we administer performance assessments. Many of us teachers don’t want to lose the performance assessments, because they give us an in-depth picture of our students’ progress and they have helped many of us to become better teachers.

“The proposed system is actually imbalanced,” Dawson continued.

Meanwhile the administration is continuing with its schedule for the new assessment system. The plan was presented to all principals in September, who are to discuss it with school councils and staffs.

“I certainly hope we are going to get the time to take a breath and really discuss this plan to determine what is in the best interest of children,” said Cynthia Ellwood, principal of Hartford University School for Urban Explorations. “We can only do that by having a broad dialogue.”

Last May, the board voted, somewhat contradictorily, to “delay adoption” of the plan for increased standardized testing, yet “adopt the system as a proposal”. The plan was voted on only three days after it was publicly released; at the single public hearing, testimony was limited to two minutes per person.

The new plan calls for annual standardized testing in reading, math, and possibly language arts to begin in the second or third grade, depending on how the school board finally votes. The plan is based on the concept of “value-added” testing to determine how much a student learns in a given time. (For a critique of the “value-added” concept, see the article on p. 20.)

For kindergarten and first grade, the plan proposes “diagnostic literacy assessment.”

The district proposal also calls for “classroom-embedded assessments” to be administered twice a year in six subjects beginning in first grade. Details remain sketchy on how these will be administered and tabulated districtwide.

Following the controversy last spring, the central administration created a Standards and Assessment Committee to make recommendations on how to proceed. A number of opponents of the plan have criticized the process by which people were selected to serve on the committee and what they consider a lack of sufficient community and teacher input.

The Coalition for Responsible Assessment has been trying to raise public consciousness about the district’s plan. The coalition includes individual parents, community people, and educators, and organizations such as Parents United for Public Schools, Milwaukee Catalyst, FACETS, People Organized Working for Education Reform, Rethinking Schools, and School Councils Organized for Progressive Education.

Stephanie Walters is an MPS teacher and a member of the Coalitionfor Responsible Assessment. For more information on the coalitionand its public hearings call 414-264-4010.