The High Stakes of Overtesting.

By Levi B Cavener

Levi B CavenerThe semester is drawing to a close for many secondary schools, including my own, across the state during the next few weeks. With this closing comes the ritualistic ceremony of the dreaded end of course exam.

Dreaded because its outcome has the ability to affect teacher and student alike. Not only does this exam carry with it the potential to move a student an entire letter grade up or down, but failure of the exam could potentially mean the withholding of the student’s credit until a sufficient amount of remediation proves mastery of the material.

Likewise, from an instructor’s point of view, too many failing grades, or even a single one, means I too have failed my students. Vice versa, too many A’s might lead one to believe grade inflation was occurring in the classroom. Perhaps Goldilocks has an idea to offer on getting this exam just right?

And yet, when I explained these reasons to take the exam seriously in my classroom today, I was met with overwhelming apathetic stares. Class after class seemed to convey that this was just another typical day in the grind of high school. Then it hit me: they are right.  Especially accurate for special education students.

My district has 171 days in which students are in attendance. However, as any secondary teacher can attest, the first day of each semester doesn’t have much instruction going on. Between schedule changes, incorrect rosters, and syllabus reading, not a whole lot of content gets delivered. We’re down to 169.

So let’s with with 169 as being the true number of days students are in classrooms. Now, let’s figure out how many days are used for testing.

Well, like most instructors, I give a pretest at the beginning of each semester. Knock off two days for that. Down to 167.

Next, both semesters have two days at the end of the terms reserved for exams. Knock off another four. Dropped to 163.

Add in another four days for each of the quarter exams. Down to 159.

Add in statewide testing for the SBAC. While authors claim it takes eight hours, about a school day, the reality for most schools is that this will take two days. Between access to enough computers, time to transition students from the classroom to the lab, the proctor reading instructions, distributing usernames and passwords, breaks for the restroom and lunch…well you get the idea. Count on another two days being lost. Drops to 157.

Next, all Idaho freshman-juniors take either a college entrance exam (usually the SAT) or pre-exam (PACT or PSAT). This eats another day. Down to 156.

This means that at a bare minimum, without any other unit tests in the classroom, all students will spend 12 of their 169 days testing, or about 7% of the year.

However, things get especially ugly for special education students. These students have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that set specific goals.

Commonly these goals measure reading and writing fluency. These goals also takes time to assess, resulting in about one day lost per month in the 8 months of the academic year. This means they will spend 20 of their 169 days testing, or about 12% of their year taking tests.

These estimates are even likely too conservative considering other interruptions like bomb threats, lockdown, fire drills, assemblies, and all the other disruptions that remove students out of instruction.  And, again, it doesn’t include those extra unit assessments and other miscellaneous quizzes most students encounter throughout the curriculum.

So yes, I think I have an idea why I received such an apathetic reaction. This is a lot of time spent testing.

Still, for better or worse, I’m expecting them to study hard while we review and earn top marks in the last exam of the term. I want to see mastery from each and every student.

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