Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Districts say tryout tests strain schools

Districts say tryout tests strain schools
Officials say such tests cost money and cut into teaching

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

Place a group of school superintendents in a room, and the
conversation inevitably turns to testing students.

At a recent meeting in Houston, the topic drawing the most wrath was
state-mandated field testing. These are tests that don't count for
anything but instead allow the testing company to try out questions
for future exams to ensure fairness and reliability.

About 80 percent of schools in Texas had to give students at least one
field test this year. In coming years, high school students could face
more of these tryout tests because state lawmakers appear intent on
replacing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills at some grade
levels with a dozen new end-of-course exams.

"With field testing, you're just testing kids to death," said David
Anthony, superintendent of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School
District. "The field testing's about to go out the roof if they pass
the end-of-course exams. It will be worse."

Students could get some relief under pending legislation. The House
has passed a bill that would limit field tests at a school to once
every four years. The Senate's version would keep field testing to an
every-other-year practice statewide — but only after the end-of-course
exams are developed.

Lawmakers will work to resolve the differences before the legislative
session ends in one week.

Superintendents say they understand the need to try out test questions
to make sure they are clear and unbiased. But some wonder why so many
students have to participate in the trial exams and whether Texas
taxpayers should have to foot the bill.

The Texas Education Agency has agreed to pay Iowa-based Pearson
Educational Measurement about $39 million for field testing conducted
from 2005-2010, according to the agency.

"The cost is probably well in line with the size of our testing
program," said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the TEA.

Field testing accounts for about 15 percent of Pearson's entire
five-year, $279 million contract with the agency.

"Taxpayers are not fully informed of what all of this is costing,"
said Dickinson Superintendent Leland Williams, "in terms of dollars
and cents, lost instructional time and the frustration that's
beginning to set in on good teachers. They're fed up with being
testers instead of educators."

Not showing up
Anthony, the Cy-Fair superintendent, said Pearson should consider
paying students to take the field tests and paying teachers to
administer them, perhaps during the summer. The results would be more
valid, he said, because students would be more motivated to try.

When field tests are given during the regular school day, some
students don't bother showing up.

"Our students in the high schools are smart enough to know which tests
matter and which tests don't," Anthony said.

A Pearson spokesman declined to comment and directed questions to the
state education agency.

Criss Cloudt, who oversees testing for the agency, said she empathizes
with those who feel overwhelmed by field testing. But state officials
have a responsibility to ensure the real tests don't include questions
that are unclear or skewed against a certain race or ethnic group, she
said. Tests have prompted legal challenges in the past.

"We use these tests for high stakes in Texas — graduation, promotion,"
said Cloudt, an associate commissioner. "It's absolutely critical we
have a testing system that's reliable and valid."

Embedded questions

Cloudt began overseeing testing in February after Lisa Chandler, the
former director, resigned and accepted a job with Pearson.

Several school superintendents said they hope the state will do away
with separate field tests. They would prefer if the trial questions
were hidden in the real tests students must take.

Pearson already embeds sample questions in many tests.

But for some subjects — particularly those that require students to
write essays or short answers — the company and the state have agreed
to use separate, full-length tests, Cloudt said.

The state also uses separate tests to try out exams for students with
severe disabilities and for some students with limited
English-speaking skills.

The proposed end-of-course exams all would require full-length field
tests, Cloudt said.

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