High stakes testing and whether once annual tests are worth the time, effort, and costs of such testing has come under a great deal of scrutiny and question throughout our nation. Michigan recently changed from administering the MEAP test to grades 3-9 in the fall to the new M-Step exam which is now given in the spring. Despite the change to a new test, the same questions about the value of any test given one time a year are still relevant. Superintendents in Dickinson and Iron Counties are asking similar questions and they believe the reasons for questioning such tests are valid and that there is a better way and a better battery of tests that should be tried in our schools.
With this being the first year schools have received results from the M-Step exam, the state directed that the results not be used for the direct comparison of one district or school to another. The directive seems wise as the results show a difference in test scores between students who took the exam with paper and pencil and students who took the exam electronically. Test results show that schools that gave the exam with paper and pencil outperformed schools that gave the exam online. Exam administrators and the state are looking into why the test favors one form of the test over another. Locally, M-Step results show a similar pattern.
As for this year’s exams, the testing window for the M-Step opens in April and runs through May. Schools did not receive exam results for last spring until this winter. To date the state has not shared testing materials from last spring’s exams. Typically the state releases the previous year’s tests or itemized results to schools so that teachers can do what is known as “item analysis.” During an item analysis teachers look at the test results in order to see where students did not do well. This allows teachers to know where they need to add greater emphasis during the school year. One of the reasons the state encouraged schools to give the exam electronically (and before too long all schools will be required to do so) was so that the state could get results back to schools rapidly. Not having the opportunity to do this and it already being March, greatly prohibits schools from being able to target areas needed for improvement. Test results should not be used for comparison’s sake until the results favoring one way of giving the exam over another have been eliminated and before the state is able to give schools detailed and useful results in a timely manner.
There may be a better way. Since the No Child Left Behind act was passed in 2002 with its heavy demand once annual testing, many educators have challenged the usefulness of such exams. Given in the fall with results following in the winter or spring, as with the former MEAP exam, test results do not give students’ current year teachers any useful information until very late in the school year. Given in the spring, as with the current M-Step, this year’s teachers do not receive feedback as to how this year’s kids are doing until after those kids are gone.
Leadership in Michigan’s Department of Education has asked for feedback from districts as to whether they would find an exam given multiple times during the school year with results following immediately following test administration, more useful. In Michigan’s U.P. and in the Dickinson-Iron ISD the answer from superintendents has been a resounding, “Yes!”
One such test, the NWEA, is given three times during the school year. Schools receive results rapidly following test completion. This way students are assessed as to their level at the beginning, middle, and nearer to the end of the year. Fall testing insures teachers have assessment information for students that are new to the system. With rapid results teachers are also able to see how their lessons are helping students and then plan for additional support in areas of indicated need.
While this seems an obvious and clear improvement over the current practice, getting to such a change will require effort. As with anything school related, politics and finances will be involved. For our part, the superintendents in Dickinson and Iron Counties want to lend our support to the argument in favor of a test such as NWEA. By testing students multiple times during the school year teachers will have a much better tool to plan lessons for their students.