WEST FARGO --Under the current requirements, students starting kindergarten in the West Fargo School District this year would take 95 standardized tests by the day they graduate, according to a district tally.
If Chuck Schwan had his way, those tests would go away.
Schwan, president of the Aurora Elementary School parent-teacher organization in West Fargo, is also an unabashed member of Stop Common Core North Dakota, which sought to defund Common Core school standards and testing during the past legislative session.
Schwan's son, a fourth-grader this fall, won't "participate in any standardized tests, other than what's required for a grade. That's where I'm at," Schwan said.
"I think it's too many. Yes, absolutely. I think it's too many at any level," said Schwan, who would end standardized testing. "It takes away from creativity. It forces kids to learn to a test, not to learn to their ability."
Students in the Fargo School District could take 72 standardized tests in their K-12 career and Moorhead School District students could take 52 tests, according to tallies by those districts.
For students in all three districts, the number of tests climbs for motivated students who take Advanced Placement tests for college credit or optional exams, such as the SAT or SAT II, required by some colleges and universities.
Schwan's not alone in feeling uneasy about the mounting demands of required testing. Many feel they don't have control over the number of standardized tests their children take.
Amanda Wilkinson, co-president of the parent-teacher association for Clara Barton-Hawthorne Elementary in Fargo, said she's heard parents grumble, "They're doing testing again."
Wilkinson will have a second-grader and fifth-grader in school this year, and from her perspective, Fargo's level of testing is "excessive."
"Just as a parent, there's always a concern that our children are being over-tested," she said. "The thinking that bothers me the most is teaching just for the test. I'd much rather they learn more relevant material ... rather than, 'You have to learn this for the test, which is tomorrow.' "
Moorhead's 52 tests are "a lot," says Tanya Lieser, president of the parent-teacher advisory council for S.G. Reinertsen Elementary.
"As a parent, I kind of feel like it's, honestly, almost excessive," said Lieser, who will have a fourth-grader, an eighth-grader and a high school senior this year.
Lieser said her children complain about having to do the pre-test in the fall, before repeating it in the spring, she said. She would like to see less emphasis on bringing up test scores, and more emphasis on a broader, richer educational experience.
Upside of testing
Beth Slette, West Fargo's assistant superintendent for elementary education, said the 95-test count is higher than most children would see, as kindergarteners and first-graders won't be given the three AIMSWEB tests (short literacy exams of a few minutes each) listed for each year unless they score lower than the 40th percentile on STAR Early Literacy tests given in those grades.
The remaining tests given in West Fargo are required by the federal or state governments, or are important for district decision-making, she said.
Slette said computerized STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) exams used by the district to assess math and reading skills are particularly helpful, because they give fast feedback to teachers and administrators on strategies and materials used to teach those subjects.
Similarly, Fargo's public schools have also used assessments that give feedback in a day or two, such as the computer-adaptive Measures of Academic Progress exams, which vary the level of difficulty of questions--depending on whether a student answers a question correctly or incorrectly -- to pinpoint which concepts that child has learned.
"It really gives you a quick turnaround" to drive instruction, Fargo schools Assistant Superintendent Rachael Agre said.
On the other hand, it takes months to get the results of the North Dakota State Assessment exams, she said.
Fargo also uses AIMSWEB and Benchmark Literacy reading tests, which teachers give in quick one-on-one sessions, Agre said.
"Who wouldn't want their child sitting down with a teacher one-on-one?" Agre asks.
The testing above and beyond what is required by the federal or state governments is done "just to know: Are we meeting the needs of our children?" Agre said.
Slette said there is a balancing act between getting needed answers and over-testing, but she also said that using several tests helps to make better decisions.
School testing helps kids get the services they need, just as medical testing helps patients get the care they need, she said.
"You bring your child to the doctor, and they say, 'Well, we're not going to run any tests to see what he has. But we're going to give him this antibiotic and maybe it will work.' We would never prescribe a medication to a child without running some tests to determine what they needed! That's how I look at this," she said.
Burden adds up
Gregory Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina, said federally mandated testing is "pretty modest" at 15 exams over a student's K-12 career. The rest of the assessment testing done around the country is tied to what states require or school districts choose to do, said Cizek, who studies testing policy.
But testing to find a student's benchmark level of knowledge, plus interim tests to meet both state and local standards, can add up to an appreciable "perceived testing burden."
Add in volunteer participation in large-scale tests or field testing of exams, and "it's looking like we're doing all sorts of testing."
Also, an hour-long test requires preparation before and processing after. Provisions may also need to be made to help children with special needs take an exam, which will also take time, Cizek said.
"Sometimes the test seems like it takes up the entire day. Even a small test can appear to be a pretty substantial burden," he said. "We don't want all that other stuff to be taking away from the time good teachers want to spend being engaged in instructing their students."
Still, Cizek doesn't see efforts by parents around to the country to opt-out from having their kids take assessment exams to be more than a "boutique movement" or a fad. Every parent wants to know how much their child is learning in comparison to other children, he said.
"The more information we have about kids' performance, the better we can serve those kids," Cizek said.
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