TOPEKA — If seeing is believing, this school year might win over teachers and parents who remain skeptical about whether standardized test-taking is really starting to play a smaller role in public education.
Next spring, Kansas students will spend 60 percent less time on state tests, the state education department estimates.
Instead of devoting up to a combined 11 hours for math and English tests, the department says those subjects should take four hours or less. Science previously took up to three hours but will shrink to two hours or less.
The announcement is drawing cheers of optimism from educators.
“Colleagues — but also parents and even my students — have been concerned about what we felt was maybe excessive testing,” said Stephanie Harsin, president of NEA-Topeka, the Topeka USD 501 teachers union. “I’ve had a lot of students ask me why we have to take so many tests.”
Jenny Wilcox, a Kansas Master Teacher who teaches math at Washburn Rural Middle School in Auburn-Washburn USD 437, expressed similar relief.
“There’s so much to teach, and it always feels like there’s never enough time,” Wilcox said.
Beth Fultz, of the Kansas State Department of Education, says state tests had been taking longer than intended, in part because the math and English assessments each consisted of four sessions that were designed to be short but often ended up eating up a full class period each.
“That was a lot of class time,” Fultz said.
The revamped version will cut the number of sessions in half, condensing the content to fit into two class periods for math and two for English.
Additionally, multidisciplinary reading and writing prompts that often combined English skills with another topic (such as social studies or history) now will be optional. So will a separate item called a math performance task. These portions, which in the past took an estimated 50 minutes each, will remain available for teachers to use with their students as desired during the school year.
Aaron Kipp, assessment director for USD 501, said the change will reduce overlapping efforts. In the case of multidisciplinary performance tasks, for example, USD 501 already has an equivalent local test, “so it was kind of redundant.”
At the same time, making the multidisciplinary tasks optional means school districts won’t need to ask teachers to spend time scoring them. Last spring, Kansas required each district to score a random selection of students’ responses. Teachers in each district underwent training, then helped score 1.5 times as many writing tests as the number produced by their own district’s students. This was to ensure at least half of all writing responses statewide would be scored by more than one teacher to allow the Kansas State Department of Education’s testing contractor — a department at the University of Kansas — to check for grading consistency.
Standardized testing has a long and storied history, but its rise as one of the single most prominent gauges of school and student performance was fueled by a 2001 federal law No Child Left Behind.
Kansas students take tests each spring in grades 3 through 8 and grades 10 or 11. Which tests they take varies by grade, but the math and English tests are required for all students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10.
Fultz said the state still will be able to gather quality academic data through the restructured annual assessments. However, the state no longer will publish scores from the newly optional multidisciplinary tasks.
The education department says the restructuring of state tests isn’t directly linked to federal changes to No Child Left Behind — which Congress recently overhauled — and ongoing reforms to Kansas’ school accreditation system.
However, it fits neatly with the motivations for many of the ongoing changes in Kansas and elsewhere, which include a shift toward measuring student and school achievement based on a wider array of academic indicators. Kansas’ revamp of school accreditation is one such example.
Meanwhile, Fultz said the education department also aims after next spring’s assessments to give school districts test data as early as May, shaving months off the usual wait.
This week, the department gave school districts preliminary data from last spring’s standardized tests. The data indicates math scores dropped statewide, while English scores rose. Since it is preliminary, the education department won’t be commenting at this point, a department spokeswoman said Friday.