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Big Changes In Store For End Of Year School Tests

Kids are half-way through the school year and no doubt talk of end of year tests has already come up in class.  There are some big changes in store for students across the state.  For one, there will be a lot more end of year tests and they won’t just be multiple choice.  They’ll include essay questions.  It’s not just kids that’ll be tested.  It’ll be a test for teachers in more ways than one. WFAE’s Lisa Miller is in the studio to talk about these changes, including a flood of new tests. 

DM: So, Lisa, why’s the state changing all  these tests? 

LM: Nearly all states have signed on to this new set of standards for what kids should know.  They’re supposed to be more rigorous and get kids to analyze rather than just memorize.  So if good analysis is the aim, then the thought is the state’s tests have to change to include essay questions.

DM: So what are these questions like?

LM: So a sample question for a high school English end-of-course exam includes a section from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  It asks the student what can be inferred about the character from that.  The answer has to include evidence from the passage.  The exam includes about two of these written responses. 

DM: And a bubble sheet isn’t going to help with that.

LM: No, it’s not.  And that’s the dilemma with grading these things.  You can’t simply use a machine to grade them…which isn’t a big problem right now for the EOCs and EOGs.  Only the high school English exam includes these free-response questions.  The state will send those tests to a company to grade.  But because all the EOCs and EOGs are new this year, the state says it’s going to take a while to figure out how to grade them. 

DM:  It sounds complicated.  Do we know how much longer it’ll take to grade the tests?

LM: Usually end of year tests get graded fairly quickly.  But this year, there’s a lot of uncertainty.  Students won’t know how they did until October of the next school year.  Now, these tests are important because they usually make up for a quarter of the student’s grades and in some cases allow that student to advance to the next year.   But, obviously, they won’t be used for that this year.  What they will be used for is getting a picture of the teacher’s impact on students.  The state will use the tests this year to begin to get a baseline.  You can imagine, that has teachers nervous since they have a stake in the outcome of these tests, but the students don’t. 

DM: Now, the state is actually adding tests this year? 

LM: Yes.

DM: And why is that?

LM:  Over the next two years the state is adding 44 exams for grades three through twelve.  They’re in subjects like science and social studies for younger students and, for high-schoolers, Global Geography, Psychology, American History…all subjects that don’t already have a state end of year test.  The state wants to get a better idea of how well teachers are doing their jobs, by seeing how much growth their students make on these tests.  The state had to roll out these new tests as a condition of accepting millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top grants.  It’s these tests where students will see the bulk of the essay questions.  And here’s the tough part…districts are responsible for grading their own tests.  CMS expects it will take 500 teachers to do the job.  And they can’t just grade their own students since these tests also reflect on the teacher.  Teachers will have to grade students in other classes.  Then at least one other teacher has to grade the test to make sure they’re all using the same standard.  Districts will have to pay for that and right now it’s not clear how much it will cost. 

DM: This sounds familiar…kind of like what CMS was doing a couple years ago?

LM: Exactly, it’s the same idea.  CMS stopped those tests, though,  after parents and teachers complained about all the extra testing, as well as mistakes in the tests.

DM: Well, this time around have there been any critics?

LM: There are certainly critics, including CMS superintendent Heath Morrison.  He thinks so many tests aren’t good for students.   And he doesn’t like that the primary purpose of these new tests is to judge a teacher’s performance, instead of a student’s. 

MORRISON: This is not we don’t want to be held accountable, it’s just really questioning the incredible amount of time our teachers are having to spend giving assessments.  When you look at the sheer volume of tests that are teachers are having to give, it’s very time consuming and it does take away from the teaching and learning process.

LM: He’s part of a group of superintendents across the country that want a three-year moratorium on standardized testing. Part of that reason is because standardized tests are changing to accommodate these new set of standards I mentioned earlier.  Two years from now the state may replace this year’s EOCs and EOGs with new ones a bunch of states plan to use to better assess those standards.

DM: This should make for an interesting year.

LM: It should.

DM: WFAE's Lisa Miller, thank you. 

LM: Thank you.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.