In the Clarkston Community Schools, we have established a clear vision: to cultivate thinkers, learners, and positive contributors to a global society. More than words on paper, this vision compels us to do the very best we can every day for each child. We work together with parents to ensure that our students achieve academically and develop holistically by serving the community, engaging in co-curricular activities, and pursuing their passions. When an assessment disrupts learning, puts undue physical and emotional stress on students, and does not produce timely and accurate data to advance our vision, it cannot meet our commitment to our kids.
This spring, our students, and thousands of others across Michigan, have engaged in the State’s new computerized M-STEP test, almost exclusively in the areas of language arts and mathematics. Despite many technological challenges, including numerous login and connectivity issues, generally speaking, the technology is handling the tests.
But, to be sure, kids are not computers. Biologically, they are not programmed to concentrate for hours at a time. At elementary schools, fifth graders have to endure up to 4 straight hours of analyzing information and writing essays, online. While the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) estimated that fifth grade students would test for up to 9.5 hour, many of Clarkston’s students ended up testing for nearly 12 hours. Parents report elementary children experiencing headaches, crying the night after the test, and having trouble sleeping.
Parents of secondary students report similar issues, along with disruptions in course content. Teachers are pulled from classes to administer tests and students are pulled from classes to take the tests. Teachers either avoid exploring new content or have students make it up on their own at home. Schools expect many more disruptions to students’ learning before the M-STEP concludes at the end of the school year.
Given these issues, why does the MDE mandate that students take these tests? The answer is simple: The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 requires the administration of a statewide assessment each year. The original intent of this law was laudable: to create an accountability system that promotes equality of opportunity and access to high quality learning environments for all students along with continuous and substantial academic improvement for every child.
Ironically, students’ test scores have for most groups only stagnated or declined in the decade since NCLB, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress. Moreover, our nation’s fixation on assessments has narrowed the curriculum toward tested subjects ‒ language arts and mathematics ‒ and lessened the amount of time students spend studying science, social studies, and the arts. NCLB has increased class time spent on test preparation, expanded the federal role in education, and heightened local expenditures on the tested subjects as federal spending in these areas has remained static.
Lastly, NCLB placed tremendous emphasis on students scoring on the margins and not on those who need the most help. Michigan’s M-STEP seems to have gone one step further in disrupting students’ learning for an extended period of time. This must change.
To make assessments worthy of our students’ time and efforts, we need not one Mis-STEP, but five steps forward toward a balanced-assessment system:
- Rather than one mandated state test, allow collaborative, flexible, alternative assessment processes between the state and local school districts.
- Allow school districts to develop assessments that reflect local values for learning, such as projects and portfolios scored by teachers, that require students to solve real problems and document students’ growth-over-time toward agreed upon standards.
- Limit state-level assessments to three to four checkpoints across grades 3 through 11, rather than annual disruptions.
- Use nationally normed and locally developed assessments already in place to measure achievement in the years without state tests.
- Continue developing a computer adaptive, state-level assessments that accurately measure students’ learning and deliver data in a timely manner.
This combination of changes will create balanced assessment systems that provide schools, teachers, families, students and the state with real-time data on students’ growth over time; increase meaningful learning across all subject areas; improve college and career readiness based upon students’ abilities to solve real problems; and align with local districts’ visions for what is best for kids. Let us, as a state, communities, and local school districts, paint holistic pictures of students’ learning, representing their achievements as much more than standardized test scores.