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Welcome to the test factory

Crystal Sylvia, a social worker at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School at Park View and the parent of two DCPS children, writes:

While many people spent the Friday before Memorial Day weekend thinking about the cookouts and barbecues that they would attend, teachers at my school were working feverishly to finish administering two reading assessments to all our students: DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) and TRC (Text and Reading Comprehension). Teachers must use these tests to monitor student progress every two weeks. That's in addition to benchmark tests three times a year.

We're ending a school year in which our students have been inundated with standardized tests like never before.

Here is a brief overview. In addition to the three DIBELS and TRC benchmarks -- which are very time-intensive for teachers because students have to be evaluated individually -- there have been four DC BAS sessions, basically test preps for the DC CAS. Each lasts two days.

Everyone knows that the DC CAS takes up two weeks at the end of April. This year it was followed immediately by two weeks of ACCESS (Accessing Comprehension and Communication in English for English Language Learners). Since we have a very large ELL population at my school, it was a huge undertaking. After the two weeks of ACCESS testing, teachers had to turn around and start administering the DIBELS and TRCs, which brings us to the end of May.

I don't think most people outside of DCPS are aware of how much time is devoted to preparing for and administering all of these standardized tests and assessments. As a community, we are not talking about the stress this puts on individual schools, teachers and, most importantly, our students.

As a social worker, I get to see the effects. Along with all of their other responsibilities -- not to mention actually teaching -- teachers are constantly pulled into meetings to learn about test procedures. And it is not just the teachers who must contend with this. Administrators, paraprofessional aides, counselors, instructional coaches and even social workers get taken away from their duties come test time. During the DC BAS and the DC CAS, everything in the school gets put on hold. This all-hands-on-deck approach paralyzes the school so that no other important issues or responsibilities can be appropriately addressed.

As a DCPS parent, I am extremely worried about how all of these tests are going to impact my own children. First, they will have teachers who are overextended and stressed. Second, as Diane Ravitch recently said about the testing mania swallowing our public school systems, "education will be corrupted and cheapened."

My children are lucky because they are performing at grade level. At Bruce-Monroe we have many students who are one, two, three or more grades behind. Forcing them to take the DC BAS and DC CAS at their current grade level is a completely alienating and belittling experience for many of them. They feel stupid, nervous and angry. The test experience just reinforces their own perception that they are utter failures. Unfortunately, there is no end in sight, and the proposed WTU contract agreement, which will link some teachers' evaluations to growth in test scores, makes the stakes higher. I am fearful that our schools will become test factories -- if that has not already happened.


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By Bill Turque  |  June 1, 2010; 12:40 PM ET
 | Tags: Crystal Sylvia testing, Sylvia DC BAS ACCESS, Sylvia DC CAS, Sylvia test factory  
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Comments

I feel that this emphasis on testing is a waste of time. The teachers have enough work to do and instead are wasting time at the meetings you mention. Also, if your children are already on or above grade level, then the testing and test preparation is wasting their time and dumbing down their education. It is so completely wrong to call what you describe as reform. At my child's school (not DCPS) they have a pep rally before the standardized test. I think this is a ridiculous waste of time. I am so sick of the gimmicks.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 1, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Amid the morass of the Washington Post/Kaplan ed. corporation
and the self-dealing, spurting-hype & cronyism tendencies of part of the WaPo editorial board & staff, ..... it is truly and definitely inspiring to read the highly professional, balanced, and insightful reporting & analysis of local politics by journalist Bill Turque (of course, his local reporting quite often has national & international implications for public education policies & methods). I hope that Turque is a role model for other reporters and for the journalism profession -- this deep thinking approach & participatory effort is so necessary for our society -- which needs to become more of a thriving democracy implementing the checks & balances and the Bill of Rights from our U.S. constitution guidelines.

Posted by: cooperunion | June 1, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

I remember when I taught at a middle school in D.C. with a large Spanish-speaking population, a student of mine made a very profound statement. I remember her saying that she and her friends are tested so much, there is no time to learn anything. Out of the mouths of babes...

Posted by: vscribe | June 1, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

I certainly understand the frustration with what appears like over-testing. I'm in the middle of it myself where I work. However, both ACCESS For ELLs for English language learners and DCCAS are given because they comply with federal mandates to annually assess students' progress under NCLB. DIBELS is another story, used in DCPS to measure student reading gains within a school year. It's also currently used in DC as a type of so-called non-value added data (NVA) to determine if students are progressing in a teacher's class where reading is taught. If not, there are negative consequences for that teacher. Part of DIBELS problem is that it's a lengthy individually given assessment that ties up a teacher.

Posted by: chelita | June 1, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse

Crystal, well said! This DCPS teacher totally agrees with you. We have become nothing but a test factory thanks to Michelle Rhee and her data driven reforms!

Posted by: UrbanDweller | June 1, 2010 9:10 PM | Report abuse

Amongst this world of testing, we are neglecting our students. Teachers are unable to tackle critical school problems.

A critical problem is discrimination in our schools. For example, the US Dept of Ed, Office of Civil Rights is currently investigating Oyster-Adams Bilingual school for discrimination against African Americans and ESL students.

Come on! It is problems like these that should be fixed by educational reforms.

Posted by: robertoh | June 1, 2010 9:21 PM | Report abuse

It is worth remembering that DIBELS provides a valuable way to "differentiate" teaching for a child in the classroom. It allows a teacher to do a 10-minute assessment and know immediately where the indicidual students' strengths and weaknesses lie and where improvement has occurred and where more work is needed. It can be a valuable tool for meeting each student where they are and moving forward. This can be very important in a classroom with widely differing levels of literacy.

Let's not reject an assessment outright just because the staff finds it onerous to administer--and this seems to be the bulk of Ms.Sylvia's complaints. Perhaps better systems could be in place to administer the DIBELS, but individualization of assessment and content delivery is a powerful way forward for many students.

Posted by: coopnat | June 1, 2010 10:23 PM | Report abuse

Also--Ms. Sylvia left the impression that all students were being monitored with DIBELS assessments every two weeks. From what I understand, students are not monitored with DIBELS every two weeks unless they have been found to be "at risk" or needing reinforcement. Here the point is to give support until the particular skill is mastered and then to not waste time...to move on.

The majority of students are given the benchmark tests three times--at the beginning of the year, the middle and the end. Should be a TOTAL of 30 minutes to 45 minutes all year if the student is on-target.

Posted by: coopnat | June 1, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

Thank you so much for this incredibly relevant post.

The testing is driving the love of learning out of my children. True, if you aren't behind, you only have to be "DIBELED" three times a year. I wonder how much relevant data is being gathered on my child, who is reading 4 grades above level? It doesn't matter though, Rhee has decreed it will be done, so it is.

Of course, while my child's wonderful teacher gives DIBELS tests one-on-one in the hallway, the class is stuck with busy work.

Thanks Michelle Rhee. You've managed to make education in the District even worse under your tenure.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | June 1, 2010 11:03 PM | Report abuse

OK, so 35 minutes per student per year is a lot of classroom time. On top of that there are the other tests. Sure some of the tests are good. But how are teachers supposed to teach and administer individualized tests at the same time?

The author says that the individualized tests are in addition to two other tests.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 1, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

Reading specialist Richard Allington:

"Look, the problem isn’t that teachers don’t know which students are in trouble and need help. I mean, you could try an experiment: Call 100 1st grade teachers around the country and ask them, “Do you have any kids who are in trouble in learning to read?” They’re not going to say, “Gosh, I don’t know. I haven’t DIBEL’d them yet.” Teachers know who needs help. If they don’t know, they shouldn’t be teaching."

But you just said that many teachers aren’t skilled in teaching reading?

"But that doesn’t mean they don’t know who’s in trouble. They just don’t know what to do with a kid who’s in trouble. The point is we need to free teachers up from spending their time using an assessment program on kids every few weeks, or having a reading or LD specialists going around doing it. Educators need to be working with kids and teaching them rather than continuing to document that they can’t do something."

http://www.edweek.org/tsb/articles/2010/04/12/02allington.h03.html?cmp=clp-edweek

Put it another way: If a group of children were obviously starving for food and malnourished, how much time, money, and scarce human resources would you spend in administering blood chemistries and other diagnostic tests, on a monitoring basis, instead of having their obvioius needs met by skilled nursing staff?

Posted by: incredulous | June 2, 2010 8:15 AM | Report abuse

Assessment of student knowledge and progress is not new; the increasing quantity and intensity is. Some of the comments made here are indicative of individuals who have not spent much time in schools that have a large number of underperforming students. Dibels testing for them is frequent. Nothing has been said about math assessments, end-of-unit tests and other classroom testing instruments that are regularly implemented. What we need is increased examination and evaluation of the impact of testing on teacher time spent in the act of teaching. We need to hear from teachers. One of the difficulties in determining the impact of educational reform in DCPS is the unavailability of unbiased evaluation by an "outside" team of experienced and skilled educators - not the 90 day wonders being passed off as knowledgeable. Assessment must be carefully monitored to determine effectiveness and to ensure that pay for performance does not result in unethical practice in the classroom or by school administrators.

Posted by: lightkeeper | June 2, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

This is one of my big concerns about DCPS, but I'm not sure if it's a problem with the current modes of education in general. How much does this testing time compare to other districts in our region? What happens in private schools?

Posted by: KH20003 | June 2, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

It is the current mode of education, but is really exaggerated in the case of students who don't come to school knowing academic English or who are "at-risk" in some other way.

There is a lot of emphasis put on these tests in Maryland also. Teachers are told to "zero in" on kids who are borderline between basic(low) and proficient(average) to get them up to speed. Schools have data specialists that spend hours pouring over test data in different subgroups, seeing how they can identify groups who need help, etc. If a whole school does poorly on a section of the test, for example, "cause and effect", then all the classes from French to Algebra will have to include some "cause and effect" questions and help in their classes.

Teacher meetings also emphasize testing. Teachers are shown charts and graphs of subgroups and asked how can we get the scores up? Then a comitee comes up with ideas for teachers to use in their classrooms.

At very low scoring schools they are always talking about the tests. It is like they are in school to take the tests.

The downside of the testing emphasis is that subjects and classes that students enjoy or learn a lot from are not tested and therefore are deemed unimportant by the school districts. P.E., Art , Music, Foreign Languages, Computers, even History and Science in some instances, are considered unimportant because they are not tested. Those classes end up with many more students and the teachers are overloaded. In Math, students are pushed to move through material quickly so they can be able to answer more questions. In elementary school, spelling and handwriting are no longer taught because there are more important things to do.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 2, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Celestun100, thank you for the follow up.

Posted by: KH20003 | June 2, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

How do you think Chancellor Rhee is going to make her mark? Numbers, everything is just numbers and everything functions around numbers.
Do tests help kids, when older, to get a job? I think you know the answer. Rhee is only interesrted in numbers, here is a good number for her: kids get zero!!!!

Posted by: jackofalltrades1 | June 3, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I have to ask, how much time is being spent on these tests, how much important material is being compressed or eliminated to make this time available, and how much material is less-emphasized or no longer taught because it bears little relation to the test scores?

I can tell you that standardized tests won't help you learn to write well, won't help you do well in college, and won't help you get a job. Perhaps this time would better be spent teaching students a useful curriculum instead of preparing them for battery after battery of expensive, lengthy, and useless tests.

Posted by: Wander099 | June 3, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Syvia, thanks so much for taking the time to describe the reality there at BM/PV. For an "outsider" like me with no connection to DCPS except the media, Council hearings and the emails DCPS sends out, it is great to get a perspective on the inside story. Regrettably, it only adds to my sense that none of the really needed changes in DCPS that would make it a safe, secure, well managed, fiscally responsible organization in which teaching and learning are the order of the day,and the whole community knows!, are being taken. Every child in DCPS is going to be "left behind" in getting an education if all they ever learn is how to take a test! Many students already drop out because school seems so irrelevant to life as it is--how much more disconnected can it get?

Posted by: 1citizen | June 3, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

bill, you are just now figuring this out? as a social worker, i think you know that all this testing and teacher/support staff layoffs, mean this: stupid children, and those stupid children do grow up and then they are stupid adults......i shudder to think

also, to the person that says dibels only takes 10 minutes to administer, lets say you have a class of 25, that is 250 minutes or 4+ hours...and what do you do with the students waiting to be tested? give them worksheets to help prepare them to take the test? a guided response topic? pull students out from gym, or music or art? take away recess? what?

Posted by: astounded2 | June 3, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

bill, you are just now figuring this out? as a social worker, i think you know that all this testing and teacher/support staff layoffs, mean this: stupid children, and those stupid children do grow up and then they are stupid adults......i shudder to think

also, to the person that says dibels only takes 10 minutes to administer, lets say you have a class of 25, that is 250 minutes or 4+ hours...and what do you do with the students waiting to be tested? give them worksheets to help prepare them to take the test? a guided response topic? pull students out from gym, or music or art? take away recess? what?

Posted by: astounded2 | June 3, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

I had to create an account just to comment on this article. I teach 1st grade in DC. Different component of the test are required at each grade level. It takes 30 minutes per student three times a year to administer DIBELS (DIBELS and TRC, 20 students * 30 minutes=600 minutes, 3 times per year). In addition to these three benchmarks, we conduct progress monitoring on below level students as described in previous posts. I am a bit of a data junky and I may be guilty of overtesting students as I eagerly await the payoff for all the effort I have put into moving my students forward. I think DIBELS is a valuable assessment, although there are parts of it which are a waste of time. However, having the opportunity to sit down with my students one on one to listen to them and really think about their strengths and weaknesses is time well spent. Unfortunately, the time does come at the expense of instruction. Either we are busy DIBELing during our lunch times and childrens' special subjects classes or we busy the children with silent activities. We spend an incredible amount of time on these assessments. It throws off classroom routines and drains teachers of energy. It's another example of how teachers are pressed to do it all and have to scramble to find time to use the restroom in addition to wasting energy we could be using to teach new material.

Posted by: anotherdcteacher | June 3, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

At the DCPS Elementary school where I am involved in DIBELS testing, NONE of the primary classroom teachers are involved in the testing. It is set up so that other professionals in the building are pulling out kids one at a time and instruction goes on normally in the classroom. It's about the management...not necessarily the testing in this case.

Posted by: coopnat | June 3, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

DIBELS contains several subtests that evaluates all developments of reading (phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, etc), however, Rhee only cares about one specific subtest, which is a piss poor way of reading data, considering a truly data driven person would look at the whole package- but that would cost too much money and time- never could get done every eight days.

Posted by: vnm202 | June 4, 2010 11:55 PM | Report abuse

You can't fatten a pig by weighing it.

Posted by: Nemessis | June 5, 2010 6:23 AM | Report abuse

There are two main points that I wanted to make in my post: First, there is an excessive amount of testing occuring year round in DCPS which is negatively impacting school staff and students to the point where harm is being done.

Second, there needs to be meaningful dialogue with participation from parents, teachers, students and DCPS administration to discuss the impact of testing.

Currently, the realities of testing are being glossed over and school reform has been reduced to an either or debate--either you are for teacher accountability and therefore you support the amont of testing in DCPS or you want students to attend failing schools.

Either you are for testing which will demonstrate what students are learning or you are opposed to all testing. These kinds of polarized arguments lead to nowhere.

Another issue that needs to be included in any discussion about standardized testing in DCPS is the influence of foundations. One of my concerns is that the big push for high stakes testing is strongly influenced by extremely wealthy individuals who have no firsthand knowledge of the school environment or community. They are not teachers and their children certainly don't attend public schools.

Unfortunately, this is mirrored at the national level where President Obama's Race To The Top education reform initiative continues the push for more standardized testing.

His children attend Sidwell Friends. They don't have to endure the test mania that my children and the students at my school have to experience. This is not fair and it is not just.

Posted by: crystalsylvia | June 5, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

When I was in school the only standardized tests I had to take were SATs, PSATs and AP exams. I didn't take them during the normal school day but on weekends. I don't think this testing time should count towards the mandated number of instructional days. This is a distraction from learning.

Posted by: Mulch5 | June 5, 2010 10:19 PM | Report abuse

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