By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Makayla Riddlespringer listens to teacher Joe Lucido. Photo by Scott Buschman
It's not surprising that the state with the highest standards in the world also has the most complicated testing system when compared to other states. Some believe that standardized testing in California is structured in such a way that a certain percentage of students, and in turn schools, will consistently be failing.
Standardized tests are designed to produce a "score spread," or a distribution of scores that can be compared, says James Popham, a former UCLA professor, test researcher and author of several books including Classroom Assessment: What Teachers Need to Know and The Truth About Testing. When test questions are answered correctly by too many students, they are removed from the test during yearly revisions, he says.
This is not happening everywhere, says Popham. "In some states, standardized tests are designed to help teachers do a better job. In other states, like California, accountability tests are absurd. For example, in California you have content that teachers think is most important, and it is content they stress and spend time on, so their kids tend to score well on it. Items that too many kids score well on are removed from the test. It's a killer. You have a test built by a testing company that is more interested in trying to produce comparisons among test takers than measuring educational quality."
Moving the goal post
The STAR test is "refreshed" each year, with new items added and others removed, confirms John T. Lawrence, director of the state Standards and Assessment Division. Nearly 50 percent of questions on each test are items from the previous year's test, and about half are new, he says. Each of the questions is designed to have an individual "range of difficulty" with some questions that 80 percent of students are expected to get right and others that only 20 percent are expected to answer correctly. If questions don't match their expected range of difficulty, they may be removed.
He says that the goal is not to make STAR tests more difficult by changing the questions, but to make it as close to the previous year's test as possible.
The STAR tests are "criterion-referenced tests," which means students are graded on what they know, not in relation to each other on a bell-shaped curve as in a norm-referenced test. However, since the goal is to separate out students' scores and label some as proficient and others as failing, Popham and other experts say that it's just a matter of semantics.
There are also different "versions" of the same STAR test depending on grade level and content area, says Lawrence. Some language arts tests for one grade may have 14 versions and there may be as many as 20 versions of some science tests.
A little-known fact is that some of the questions students struggle with don't actually count when it comes to scoring. They are "imbedded field testing questions" that may be counted in future tests, depending upon how well students answer them, says Lawrence.
Questions on the California Standards Tests, the major component of the STAR program, are written by California educators and test developers. When asked to define "educator," Lawrence says that all "item writers" must have had at least three years' classroom experience at the appropriate grade level and content area.
"Some have retired and others have moved into administrative positions, but all have spent at least three years in the classroom," he says.
At least 70 percent of the questions in a STAR test assess "key standards." And then there are "rotating" standards. Half may be rotated every two years and one-third rotated every three years. You can look at the state's Blueprints at the California Department of Education's website (www.cde.ca.gov) to see which standards are key and which are rotating, but there is no information as to what specific year they will rotate in or out. It can be very confusing. One rotating algebraic standard, for example, reads: "Given a specific algebraic statement involving linear, quadratic or absolute value expressions or equations or inequalities, students determine whether the statement is true sometimes, always or never."
Some questions have a higher point value than others, but teachers have no idea which questions or standards provide students more points. Tests, of course, are kept under lock and key.
With so much at stake, classrooms in California have become, in the words of many teachers, "testing factories," with constant test prep and no time for critical thinking. But that is not supposed to be happening, says Lawrence.
To prep or not to prep
"In the Department of Education we are discouraging teachers from focused test prep. There are pieces of the Ed Code that forbid it. They are not supposed to drill it or give practice tests over and over so that students are memorizing the correct response and don't know the fundamental skills to get an answer. We want kids to understand critical thinking skills that demonstrate what they know and can do in assessments."
Nonetheless, teachers say such "drill and kill" instruction has become the norm at most schools with so much pressure over standardized testing, says Joe Lucido, a teacher in Fresno, member of the Central Unified Teachers Association and founder of Educators and Parents Against Test Abuse/People for the Ethical Treatment of Children.
Before STAR tests are administered, teachers must sign an affidavit that says they will not reveal the contents of the test. Then they must watch a video where they are told that test prep is not to be used to prepare students for testing and that it is against state law.
"What is highly confusing is that the state of California produces a practice test that looks just like the STAR test," says Lucido. "They are sent to schools. How in the world is that in compliance with the law that we aren't supposed to be test-prepping our kids? To me, these books are a violation of the law." Furthermore, says Lucido, districts may contract with companies that have "benchmark" tests aligned with state standards that are supposed to be predictors of how students will score on the tests and teachers use these to prepare students for real tests.
"The state says you aren't supposed to test-prep, but if you are in a high-poverty school, there's a lot of pressure," says Lucido. "If the principal asks you to do test prepping and you don't, you can be considered out of compliance with school policies. It's a dark secret and it's happening. Because teachers may be pressured to teach to the test, what is happening in the classroom would abhor many, many parents. Schools are pulling released sample test questions and focusing on how to get their kids to eliminate, guess and out-trick the test makers."
"Everybody does it," says Virginia Tibbetts, a fifth-grade teacher at Roosevelt School in Anaheim. "We're requested to do it and have special periods during instructional time when we do it."
Tibbetts, a member of the Anaheim Elementary Education Association, says that teachers take released sample test questions and show students how to narrow down the answers. "We put them on the overhead. There are usually two pretty outlandish answers, and we teach students how to eliminate those right away. Then there is a ‘distractor' answer which is pretty close to the correct answer, but just a little bit off, and it's designed to distract you from the real answer. We teach kids how to recognize those. Kids can be taught to do this and it doesn't prove they understand the question. It's teaching children how to pass a test rather than teaching them concepts about which they need to be adequately educated."
Unnecessary levels of stress
With so much pre-testing and pressure to score well, many students experience high levels of stress, says Lindy Monge, a sixth-grade teacher at Robert M. Pyles Elementary School in Stanton.
"By the time we get to the CSTs, the kids are very stressed," she says. "They know how important it is. If a student moves up any level, be it from Far Below Basic to Below Basic, or from Basic to Proficient, or any combination of moving up, then they get recognition with a medal. In sixth grade the pressure is more on them for the fact that we tell them all year that these scores on the CST will be used to determine their classes in junior high. If they don't do well on them, they won't be able to participate in electives, and instead will be taking remediation classes to improve in math and language arts. So instead of taking an art class, or woodworking, or computers, they will be taking two math classes, or an extra reading class along with their regular language arts class. Students are reminded of doing well on these tests almost daily."
Over the years, she has seen students become mysteriously ill before testing, and teachers need to call them at home and tell them they need to show up.
"I've had kids leave the room throwing up," says Monge, a member of the Magnolia Educators Association. "Sometimes they become frozen, and you have to talk them through it and encourage them. The high achievers are the most stressed. Sometimes their hands will go up and they point to something and say, ‘You didn't teach me this.' I have to explain to them that I have taught them the depth and breadth of standards-based education and if the question is being asked in a different way, they need to use their skills and knowledge to the best of their abilities. This goes on for two weeks of testing. There must be a better way to do this."
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