03 November 2008

What Shall We Test?

In Washington, we've had a statewide assessment for Writing (grades 4, 7, 10) for as long as we have had state tests. I have been ambivalent about this test for several years now. As much as I believe in graduating students who have good writing skills, I don't know that this belongs as a performance area to compare schools and growth. There is also the question of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent developing and scoring the tests each year. Finally, the feds only require that we test reading, math, and science (with the first two currently figured into AYP). Why lump more expectations upon schools than is necessitated by the legislation? I'm guessing that I'm not the only one thinking about this. I see that Maine is looking to cut its statewide tests for writing.

I was thinking again this week after reading a WaPo article about the decline in time spent on science in elementary classrooms due to focus on other tested subject areas:

Science advocates recommend 45 minutes to an hour of science instruction daily starting in upper elementary grades. But many elementary and middle schools now offer half as much science as they did before the law was enacted. Middle schools that used to teach a full year of science and social studies now may offer a half-year of each. Elementary schools have squeezed the two subjects into one block of time to make room for more reading and math.

While this observation might not really qualify as "news," what is new is the realization that NCLB requirements in science may well lead to a positive impact. "Science advocates predict that school systems...under pressure from the new tests, will begin to restore lost hours of instruction."

I'm not sure where the time will come from. Personally, I am a great advocate for integrating more non-fiction reading (science topics) and using experiences in science as a springboard for writing in elementary classrooms. Many elementary teachers agree with that philosophy...but lots of administrators do not. "Reading" and "Math" mean using the district programs (e.g. Open Court, Investigations...). To "implement with fidelity" (a la Response to Intervention) means no mingling can occur. There is going to have to be some sort of detente between the teacher and admin camps before we can seriously look at restructuring the precious bits of time we have available for student learning.

It is a shame, to say the least, that subject areas are left scrapping for time based on their importance to testing. I've heard many a social studies and world languages teacher musing on what it would be like to have a tested area---how they might have more serious consideration if that happened. It's sad to think that the answer to the question "What shall we test?" is leading to such narrow curriculum options for children.


Joe said...

The rest of the subjects will only be taken as seriously as math and ELA when we are tested equally. I have very mixed feeling about this. I believe the tests are creating many other problems like the inability to critically think as all instruction is focusing on mastering a multiple choice test. However, at this time "playing the game" is the only way I will get kids into my science classroom for the entire year. I can't wait until math, ELA, social studies, and science are each 25% of the school's test score.

The Science Goddess said...

It really is a weird situation to be in. I have heard a lot of social studies teachers rail against testing...only to realize that a mandated test may be their only ally in getting a chunk of the school day back for their topics.

We'll hold our collective breath and see where the new president (and Secretary of Education) make changes to NCLB. I don't think testing will go away, but what things look like (and what gets measured) could be very different.

Jenny said...

I'm concerned that testing in areas like science and social studies will lead us to focus on fact recall rather than true understanding of concepts. I'm not convinced that it will mean genuine, authentic instruction and learning in those areas.

While I value science and social studies, I'm not certain that testing them equally with language arts and math is a reasonable solution. As long as testing drives what is taught it will be a very limited curriculum.

Jenna said...

I remember reading in one of the Little House on Prairie books that Laura took a test to be a teacher and had to take a graduation test before that - it was quiet extensive in the required knoweledge. Perhaps in examing the old with the new, we can find a happy balance.

The Science Goddess said...

Jenny---I think your point is well taken. The "three R's" really do tend to be more skill-based in nature. After all, we don't test 10th graders on the content of Julius Caesar or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Hedgetoad---I hope you're right. We (as a society) really do need to find that balance.