Wednesday, September 30, 2009

CSI: Autopsy of an "Assessment"

As mentioned here on myriad occasions, there are two types of mandated tests given these days in New Mexico schools:
  1. Standards-Based Assessments (SBAs): Federally mandated via "No Child Left Behind". Determines whether a school/district meets "Adequate Yearly Progress". Some states have their own self-created tests and acronyms for these, but New Mexico can't afford its own name/acronym, so it uses a generic alternative. Is administered over roughly two weeks in March/April. Is what people read about in the paper and use as evidence to tell each other whether a school is "good" or "bad". Individual scores unimportant to the point that many folks (student/parents/teachers) don't even know how individual students scored. Widely viewed as villain in the theatrical production known as "standardized testing".
  2. Short-Cycle Assessments (a.k.a. in 2009 "DBA"): Vaguely mandated (State, District, obscure public official who nobody really knows and is no longer at the State/District) Reading and Math test given three times per school year. Unlike SBA is focused on the individual student. Results used to place non-proficient students (cutoff percentages always vague and changing) in "Response to Intervention" classes. "Response to Intervention" (RTI) generally agreed to be the single stupidest public education buzzphrase (in a very, very tough competition). RTI classes vary widely, but often lead to remedial students being deprived of electives. Placement of students via short-cycle assessments is highly contentious, devoid of clear district/state mandates and features no "exit strategy" (i.e., how does the kid get out of the "RTI" class?) component.
The above is included to hopefully make a long autopsy short. As a new-fangled "Language Arts" teacher (after years of teaching "Literature"...another long story, don't ask), I get to administer the short-cycle Reading assessment to my students. Here's how that's going so far:
  1. The District delayed getting the test materials to the schools for quite some time.
  2. Upon delivery of the materials in mid-September, schools were informed they would have to make copies of test materials.
  3. The "testing window" was originally published as September 21 - October 2 (two weeks or ten days of school).
  4. Upon receipt of the test booklets, teachers noticed that this year's assessment was going to take longer than in previous years.
  5. Right as the "testing window" opened, the District altered the "testing window", suddenly shortening it to October 1st.
  6. Teachers, who tend stuff in advance, suddenly had to figure out how administer a longer test in a shorter testing window.
  7. Meanwhile, APS and other schools around the state report higher than normal absenteeism due to an early cold/flu season.
Put it all together and you've got a truly "high-stakes" test for students (unlike the SBA) administered in a fashion usually reserved for "low-stakes" activities like drunken nickle-dime-quarter poker games. No, that's an insult. Drunken poker games are typically planned far, far better than this.

And, as noted above, we get to do this three times this school year, on top of the two weeks or so of SBA testing. Given the longer time devoted to these Short-Cycle Assessments, we're now talking:
  • Roughly 10 days of SBA testing
  • At least two days of short-cycle stuff per go-round
  • Times three
  • So that's another six days of school, minimum (some students/classes are taking longer)
  • for a total of 16 days of school
  • That 16 days out of 180, or about 9 percent of the entire school year devoted to standardized testing (of course, not including the actual classroom quizzes/testing based on what is getting taught in the "we don't teach to the test, honest we don't" classroom).
  • Added together with all the typical assemblies, parent-teacher conference days, etc., you're talking roughly, what, 150 or so days of actual instruction?
I don't really watch "CSI" or any of those forensics TV shows, so I don't know what they do when the investigators finish their autopsies and stuff. I'm guessing they zip up the body, and tell the highly attractive detectives Suspect X is guilty because of some carpet fibers found in Suspect X's risotto or something.

Well, we don't really carpet fibers to tell who Suspect X is when it comes to the murder of quality teaching here. Just like in those shows where the "helpful" (and attractive) "guest star" character is the actual murderer, the murderer here is viewed by many as both "helpful" and "attractive".

As Mr. Sting (i.e. Sumner) once sang: "Murder by, two, three. As easy to learn as your A, B, C".


Anonymous said...

Help me understand, would you please? Are all schools required to do the short cycle assessments or only those who did not meet AYP? Thank you for the clarity or guidance on where to find answer.

jscotkey said...


As per normal, the answer here is murkier than you'd think. Here is a copy/paste from the NM Public Education Department Educational Plan for Student Success (EPSS) template:

The district is required to fully implement the use of short cycle assessments in order to assess student progress toward EPSS academic goals and provide the basis for adjusting instruction/programs prior to receiving the results of the end-of-the-year New Mexico criterion references test (NMSBA).

This doc can be found here (too lazy to do the html tags):

There's more, but I think I'll just wait to throw that into another blogpost tomorrow morning.

SydTheSkeptic said...

This year, my school went from 80-minute blocks to 50-minute periods.

That means I have twice as many classes, twice as many students, and almost half the time that I had last year to teach what I need to teach.

Given that, every day is GOLD to me so when the DBA tests came and I had to take two full instruction days PLUS all the make-up due to absences...ugh, it really sucked.

And that's just round ONE.

Can things get any more surreal?

lowly pedagogue said...

Add into the mix that the actual questions on the test are relatively low level "I can point directly to the answer in the text" kinds of questions. My proficient readers question why the test is so long because the items are all so similar and "didn't I already answer that two pages ago?" My students who struggle to point and breathe at the same time think the test is too long because "I've pointed so much already, Miss." Personally, I was always taught not to point. It's considered bad form.