COLUMBIA — Lara Wakefield’s daughter, Maria, is choosing to take a test.
Wakefield offered the fourth-grader the choice of whether to take this year's Missouri Assessment Program grade-level assessment, which Columbia Public Schools is administering through Tuesday. Her son, James, is in first grade, so he doesn't have to take the test yet.
Results from MAP tests are used to determine whether schools are meeting benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Some parents and teachers think that there's a place for standardized testing but that it's not the only measure of student achievement.
Wakefield, who gave Maria the option of staying home, said she thinks her daughter chose to take the test out of respect for her teachers, who had spent time and attention emphasizing the test. She respects her Maria's decision.
"I think the more important issue, though, is that she’s provided the option and that she’s allowed to make a choice," Wakefield said.
Vision vs. method
Wakefield worked in Columbia Public Schools as a speech-language pathologist from 1997 to 2000 and from 2007 to 2009 at two elementary schools. She worked with special education students, and one of her responsibilities was to work with students who had special needs during MAP testing.
Currently, she owns Wakefield Consultation Services, which offers speech-language therapy and parent advocacy services. In 2004, she conducted a study on the effects of standardized testing on reading curriculum.
Wakefield said she thinks MAP testing is a misguided use of money to see if students are proficient, instead of using money to provide intervention for those who need it.
"I think that the state has lost sight of what they were trying to accomplish. Also, I think the state is under the pressure of national mandate," she said.
Students in grades three through eight take the grade-level assessment in communication arts and mathematics, and students in grades five and eight take grade-level assessments in science, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. High school students take End-of-Course exams.
One way results from MAP tests are used is to determine whether schools meet adequate yearly progress, or AYP, benchmarks under No Child Left Behind. The act requires that 100 percent of students become proficient in communication arts and math by 2014.
Counting the cost
Ann Youmans, who has a fifth-grader and an eighth-grader in the district, said her biggest concern is whether standardized testing is worth the cost for the results schools get. Although she doesn’t know the exact costs of testing for schools, she said there is a cost associated with writing and grading the tests each year.
"As a parent watching other services get cut, my question is, does testing deliver?" she said. "Having spent the money this way, what result are we getting? From the education psychology standpoint, are the tests measuring what we want to know; that is, what we want the district to improve?"
Chip Sharp, director of research, assessment and accountability for Columbia Public Schools, said the district pays $14,000 for the state assessments each year, which amounts to $1.80 per student. He said this doesn’t include costs of the work other people in the district put in associated with the test.
Usefulness of feedback
Kari Schuster, a sixth-grade reading teacher at Smithton Middle School and president of the Columbia Missouri State Teachers Association, said most people don’t see MAP testing as effective.
Schuster said teachers don’t get results until after their students have left their classrooms and that the data doesn’t provide a breakdown of what questions students missed, so the results can’t really be applied.
She also said the test doesn’t account for other aspects of a student’s life, such as their home or school environment.
"The MAP test holds teachers and the district accountable, but it doesn’t provide any feedback that would be helpful to teachers in the classroom," she said.
Place of standardized testing
Sally Beth Lyon, chief academic officer for the district, said standardized tests like the MAP aren’t effective measures of success if used in isolation but that these data can be used to measure the health of a school system if it is part of a framework of assessment.
"I think it has a place within a comprehensive assessment system, because we need to know how our kids are doing at the end of the day," Lyon said.
Superintendent Chris Belcher said Columbia Public Schools uses a number of standardized tests for diagnostic purposes and that when such tests are used in this way, they can be an effective way of determining a student’s progress. He agreed it was important that schools not use single measures to determine whether they are effective.
Future of the MAP
In February, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education applied to the U.S. Department of Education for a flexibility waiver that would provide relief from requirements of No Child Left Behind.
Margie Vandeven, assistant commissioner of the state Office of Quality Schools, said that in 2014, MAP testing will be replaced with a new assessment through the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which will allow Missouri to compare test results with other nearby states.
Belcher said that currently, a problem with standardized testing is that every state sets its own cutoff scores and proficiency standards to determine if a school has met No Child Left Behind requirements.
He said Missouri has a particularly rigorous test, which makes it more difficult for students to be deemed proficient. He said the implementation of a new test will allow for better comparison of students among states.
Spotlighted, but not defining
Sharp said that there will always be those who have different opinions on the effectiveness of MAP testing and that arguments can be made for or against the test. He said that sometimes the MAP test receives more attention than it might deserve and that it should be used with other information the district receives about student performance.
One positive aspect of No Child Left Behind is that it helps schools look at progress of individual subgroups, Sharp said. However, he also said that it was hard to compare school districts across the state with different student makeups and that there were different ways districts could show growth.
Kristin Matthews, principal of Grant Elementary School, said that because standardized testing procedures were in place, she couldn’t like or dislike them because they are part of a school’s reality.
Matthews said one test won't make the difference in student achievement, but the work teachers and students have done throughout the year does.
She said standardized tests should be used as summary of a student's skills that tells teachers whether they taught effectively and whether students learned what they were supposed to learn.