Sunday, April 26, 2009

"A2L" & The Seedy Underbelly of Standardized Testing

When a normal, non-teacher type, person thinks "high-stakes testing", s/he is thinking about the "SBA". Standards-Based Assessment. At least in New Mexico...these things have different names/acronyms in other states, which could lead us to about 5,000 words on how different states do testing.

But that would be a digression, and we're not doing that today. One big reason for not doing digressions today is that my Dell laptop's hard-drive blowed up this morning and I am typing this post on my wife's Mac. My feelings about Macs would be yet another digression, but I'll foreshorten a long, long rant by just mentioning that typing on my wife's keyboard is like walking on poorly-laid flagstone, in the rain, when one has had more than three beers.

And despite the strong, strong temptation to run with one of the 47 possible digressions possible from the immediately preceding paragraphs, I am sticking to schools and standardized testing.

For you see...standardized testing isn't quite as simple as you, dear normal non-obsessed, non-teacher person might think. For despite the fact that everybody from the media to parents to new Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan focuses on the "high-stakes testing" that is, in New Mexico, "SBA", there are plenty of other tests during the year that actually have much more impact on the individual student.

In fact, perhaps the single most surreal aspect in the hyper-surreal universe of "high-stakes testing" is that students very, very often do not even know how they did on the SBAs. Truth be told, most parents don't know or remember how their kid did either.

As a teacher of the "gifted", I have these absolutely worthless required meetings with parents/students once per year. Don't ask me why, or I promise I'm going straight to Digression Land. At these meetings I always show the student/parent the kid's SBA score. About 98% of the time the parent and kid look at each other while looking at the SBA numbers, and ask "Did you know this score?" Each of them then shrug their shoulders and say "no, did you?"

And then, being a teacher of the "gifted" at a "liberal" school with lots of involved, politically-aware parents, I often get to hear from these parents about how much they hate the SBAs. Upon hearing these mini-harangues, I shrug my shoulders and move on to the next part of the absolutely worthless meeting.

Hence, what gets called "High-stakes testing" is only "high-stakes" for the school/District/State. But SBA is just one of the buttload of standardized tests kids take each year.

The most important of these additional tests is, in New Mexico at least, the "A2L: Assess to Learn". The A2L (and no, I'm not going to divert my/your attention by pointing out how incredibly stupid the name and faux-hip-hop acronym are) is a three-test regimen over the course of a school year. It used to be two tests, one to see how kids are already prepared for the work covered in the new school year, and the second to see how well they use/comprehend the work that was taught that school year.

But that wasn't enough, so now we have three. More to the point, we have a third A2L test to give in early/mid-May. Yes, we are going to give a test about two weeks before school gets out, only a month after two semi-solid weeks of "high-stakes testing".

But it gets better than that. Not only are we giving yet another test right after the "big" test and just before we get out of school, but this test has very important ramifications for the student. Namely, students scoring below 70% on this test (Reading/Math) are supposed to be placed in special "remediation" classes next year.

Placement in these classes may, or may not, mean a student can't take an elective next year. "Failure" on this particular A2L test can mean no Band or Orchestra for a student. It also definitely (well, almost definitely) means they will be placed in a "remediation" class, taught through some "curriculum-in-a-box" program that costs thousands of dollars and was purchased through some shady process that somebody should turn into a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of newspaper articles (if in fact newspapers continue to exist by the time the next Pulitzer is awarded).

The word "supposed" and phrase "may or may not" appear above because our school has not yet formalized a schedule for next year to address the necessary outcomes dictated by the failure of students on this all-important A2L that will be given about two weeks before school is out. We have no idea how many students will "fail" this very important test. We have no clear direction from the District on what schedule we should use for these "failing" students next year. We don't exactly know if we are supposed to place students based on the single score from this 3rd A2L or an averaging of all three. Ergo, we don't really know exactly how many students can have zero, one, two, three electives next year. It's quite amazing, really, how much we don't know.

But I've saved the best for last.

First, let's look at the Math test. It has 43 questions. Our Math Department looked at the test, and immediately noticed that 4 of the questions were unusable. For example, one question offered four answers, none of which was the right answer. And no there wasn't a "none of the above" answer. There just wasn't a correct answer anywhere. As a Math colleague quickly pointed out, 4 bad questions means 9% of the overall test is worthless. What is to be done with the worthless 9%? Do the kids get these right for "free"? Do we get new replacement tests delivered to us sometime around June 15th or so?

Again, these are the truly "high-stakes" tests. Let's look at the Reading test.

This test is full of long passages that students read and then bubble in some multiple-choice answers. I'm talking passages longer than the overly long blog post you are currently wading through. At the "test training" we had last Friday we were specifically told that students cannot make any marks in the test booklets. Zero.

In other words, students can't highlight the passages, circle important words, nothing. Given that we have all taught students to do this for years, it's a little weird to have them suddenly stop doing this on a really important test with seriously long passages.

If you or I were taking this test, and we had been told it meant the difference between having a fun elective next year and some boring as Hell "remediation" class, we would sure as Hell highlight and mark up the test booklet regardless of who told us we couldn't. The damn test booklet would be as yellow as a Kansas cornfield in September by the time we got done. And we would turn the test booklet in, mumble "sorry" without meaning it, and walk away.

Of course if our kids do this they are to be branded as test-destroying miscreants. Oh, the humanity.

Lastly, the question came up at the "training" about possibly making copies of the test, thus allowing some students to have an extra copy to highlight/note through. We were specifically told this was unacceptable. Why tests could then be copied and saved for later!!! Tests could be left lying around and...oh, again, the humanity...

Having now typed about 1,200 words on my wife's lousy keyboard about this subject I can certainly see why the "normal" among us doesn't really know much about truly important standardized tests like the "A2L". It's complicated and boring and full of guilty secrets.

The "high-stakes testing" situation in this way reminds me, strangely, of drinking and the Irish. The SBA is like "St. Patrick's Day", a day in which everyone can be Irish and feel a weird kinship with the Irish by drinking heavily. Well, the A2L and other tests (and yes, there are plenty of others) are more like being Irish every day. The daily routine of drinking, wearing green and burning peat in the fireplace isn't so glamorous or worthy of celebration. It's kind of a drag really, laborious and full of guilty, terrible secrets.

And I say this as a person with significant Irish "blood". And a teacher.

Oh well, A2L Go Bragh, or something like that. Meanwhile, I gotta go order a laptop hard drive before I throw my wife's keyboard through the window.

Have a good week, everyone...four weeks left, teacher friends. Four.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, Gosh, even Arne could understand it!

Lucky said...

Just a tidbit - at my school, we were told that if we let the students mark the test booklets, we the teachers would be personally responsible for erasing all marks.

michelle meaders said...

Lucky, do they ever use a test booklet again? if not, why this rule?

Scot, too bad you can't use your own keyboard on her Mac, (or buy a new one for $20 or so). Is hers an egonomic one?

jscotkey said...

Michelle: Haven't seen you around these parts in a while, thanks for dropping by.

My blowed up computer is a Dell laptop, so no option to switch out keyboards. I sprang for a new HD ($75) so I'll only have another week or so to complain about this Mac stuff. And complain I shall most probably do, even if my film class is pretty much Mac only.

steve said...

I love the conversations like, "which test are we using for this, A2L, or SBA?" To clarify future conversations, SBA is meant to punish the schools, A2L is meant to punish the kids. A2L leads to AIP's, summer school referrals, alert lists, remediation, retention. SBA leads to school restructuring and "failed school" status. As you have noted, the SBA is not really useful to anyone and few if any parents, or students are even aware of it. It has only one purpose and that is to confirm that all public schools are failures. By 2014 all schools will have "achieved" failure status and then, maybe we can move forward???

Lucky said...

Michelle, I think the books are rotated throughout the whole school. Still. . .seems it would make more sense to have the KID who wrote in it erase, rather than threaten teachers.

JenM said...

I know this is old thread but I found it when I searched "A2L". I am glad to know that I am not the only one who finds the APS testing system cryptic.

APS first told me that my son needed special education. Now they tell me he is probably gifted. I kind of knew that all along, but I was surprised that APS was finally becoming aware of it.

At the end of fourth grade APS reported he had a 7th grade reading level (which I think is about accurate) but when he got home from the last day of 5th grade today APS' reports looks like the last report puts him at about a 4th grade reading level. How is that possible?

I would love to get some inside guidance to help me navigate APS testing system because at the moment I am lost. My son took an AP math test which I was told he passed but I have yet to find out, despite numerous requests, what his score is. The fact that my son is coming from a non-feeder school (transfer student) seems to only add to the confusion.

jscotkey said...

JenM: Got your comment. If you would, drop me an email and I'll reply with some specifics. Thanks for dropping by.