Ohio’s Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Richard Ross, published his Testing Report and Recommendations last week as directed by the Ohio General Assembly as part of House Bill 487.  The report contains information about the amount of time students in Ohio are spending on tests and subsequently makes recommendations about how Kasich and the legislature can make changes.  Given that Ross was Kasich’s choice for state superintendent, we won’t be surprised to see some of the recommendations included in the governor’s budget bill when it comes out in the next month or two.

DSCN0752The information that Ross included in the report about the time spent testing isn’t news to Ohio’s teachers, but the way he presents it at such a basic level for Ohio’s lawmakers is mind-numbing.  Ross, who has worked with members of the General Assembly when he was in Kasich’s office and now as state superintendent, obviously felt like he needed to break things down at the most basic level, even for those who have been religiously passing laws about testing for the past few years.  It is clear that Ross did not believe the audience for his report had any real knowledge about the outcomes of the laws they have been passing.

That being said, why did it take a mandate from the General Assembly for Ross to speak out in this manner?  Why, with the information included in this report so important for Ohio’s boys and girls, has Ross been so silent for so long?

Furthermore, because this report is moderately critical (albeit indirectly) of the myriad of laws that have been enacted in recent years, we have no doubt that it had to be approved by Kasich’s office before being released.

Let’s look at Ross’s first recommendation:

Recommendation 1: Limit the amount of time a student takes tests at the state and district levels to 2 percent of the school year, and limit the amount of time spent practicing for tests to 1 percent of the school year.

Pages from Testing_recommendationsThis recommendation follows a section detailing how much time students currently spend taking state or district tests (administered to meet a state requirement) based on information gathered from a survey of Ohio’s schools (see chart at right).  The study specifically excluded tests given by individual teachers — you know, the useful kind of assessments that teachers use to measure what students actually know and are able to do in order to modify instruction moving forward.

It’s certainly a step forward to look at placing a limit on testing time, but the recommendation by Dr. Ross is superficial at best.  It’s easy enough to calculate what the minimum number of hours spent on testing will be based on the minimum requirements for a school year as codified by law.  At grades K-6, a school year must be at least 910 hours and grades 7-12 must be in school for at least 1,001 hours.

If we apply the 2% testing limit to these hours, we end up with testing limits of 18.2 hours in grades K-6 and 20.02 hours in grades 7-12.  In comparing to the chart from the report (above right), it looks like this would have a significant effect, at least in grades 3-10.  When we look deeper at the recommendation in the report, however, we may not see any real difference in practice.

From the report:

A percentage limit also allows for the variation in school schedules because it is based on the school district’s calendar.

Finally, some students may choose to take more than three courses with a corresponding end-of-course exam all in one year. For example, a 10th-grade student might take the English II, geometry, biology and American history end-of-course exams in one year to fulfill graduation requirements. In a case like this, time spent testing beyond three end-of-course exams will not count against the school’s limit. However, districts should still consider the total testing burden on these students and make any appropriate adjustments needed, especially in grade 10.

The first sentence clarifies that it’s not a firm time limit from the state based on the minimum hours requirement, but is actually based on the individual school/district’s schedule.  For schools that are still exceeding the state minimum, the number of hours of testing increases to beyond the average shown in the chart above.

Here’s what the 2% looks like for schools still in session for 182 days and 6 hours/day:


While the concept of limiting the testing based on a percentage sounds good on paper, it’s meaningless in practice.  Add in the fact that students in most of the high school grades will (by choosing to take the very courses they need/want for college readiness) necessarily take tests — and are permitted to based on the report’s recommendations — and the 2% limit becomes wholly irrelevant.

As we continue looking at the additional recommendations by Dr. Ross, we find the same story — an attempt to shift blame away from the Ohio General Assembly and the Ohio Department of Education and toward local school districts under the guise of “local control”.

Recommendation 2: Eliminate the fall third-grade reading test and administer the test in the spring. Students who do not reach the required promotion score on the spring test will have a second opportunity to take the test in the summer. Administration of the summer test will be optional and outside school classroom time. Districts will continue to have the option of using a state-approved alternative test throughout the year as a way for their students to show they are reading at grade level. This recommendation would eliminate one state test and reduce the amount of testing time for a third-grade student by 4.75 hours each year.

Again, this sounds good in theory as it cuts an “end-of year-content” test out of the beginning of the year, but for high-performing districts and students who would attain a passing score at this point in the year, it provides some relief that they have attained the necessary score to advance to 4th grade.  For others, it helps to identify need additional intervention.  Additionally, there is the argument that, although age-inappropriate, students can actually benefit from being exposed to this high-stakes testing situation so that the Spring administration is not entirely unfamiliar to them when it arrives.

The hidden thing that this elimination really does is cut the cost of these tests from ODE and pass that cost along to districts who now will want/need to purchase one of the state-approved alternate tests to demonstrate that the student has the “permission of the General Assembly and Kasich” to advance to fourth grade.

Recommendation 3: Eliminate the state’s requirement that districts give mathematics and writing diagnostic tests to students in first grade through third grades. This recommendation does not affect the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, which requires schools to give an approved reading diagnostic test to K-3 students each year.  This recommendation gives districts the option of deciding which diagnostic testing in writing and math, if any, is appropriate for their students in these grades. Because diagnostic testing is an important part of instruction, teachers and administrators will have local flexibility to customize a diagnostic process that works for their students, and that process may or may not include testing. The department still will make the state writing and math diagnostic tests available for schools to use at no cost if they choose.

While it’s great to eliminate the mandates for the math and writing diagnostics, Ross should have included a recommendation to provide greater flexibility to schools regarding the required reading diagnostic tests.  There are many children across the state who are reading at advanced levels in the primary grades and to keep retesting them at the beginning of every year is simply absurd.  A simple fix would be to set “cut scores” that would allow a district to exempt children from the future diagnostic tests.  This recommendation clearly states “diagnostic testing is an important part of instruction, teachers and administrators will have local flexibility to customize a diagnostic process that works for their students, and that process may or may not include testing”, but that explicitly excludes reading.  For districts that have an exemplary record of student performance on these standardized tests, why would they not be granted this same flexibility for reading?

The report’s final recommendation is to eliminate Student Learning Objectives for most teachers (Recommendation 4: Eliminate the use of student learning objective tests as part of the teacher evaluation system for grades pre-K to 3 and for teachers teaching in non-core subject areas in grades 4-12. The core areas are English language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.)

While there are many teachers who will celebrate this concept, the alternative to the SLO’s is not something to eagerly embrace:

Teachers teaching in grades and subject areas in which student learning objectives are no longer permitted will demonstrate student growth through the expanded use of shared attribution, although at a reduced level overall.

While this recommendation does not affect tests aligned to student learning objects for teachers teaching in core content areas in grades 4-12, when no Value-Added or approved vendor assessment data is available, the department gives teachers and administrators the following advice.

First, educators should not test solely to collect evidence for a student learning objective. The purpose of all tests, including tests administered for purposes of complying with teacher evaluation requirements, should be to measure what the educator is teaching and what students are learning. Second, to the extent possible, eliminate the use of student learning objective pre-tests. When other, pre-existing data points are available, teachers and schools should use those instead of giving a pre-test.

Basically, this recommendation makes the entire Student Growth Measure component of a teacher’s evaluation even messier than it is now.

First, teachers in the primary grades would have half of their overall evaluation rating now based on shared attribution — the practice of using the value-added results of school (or district) applied to all of the teachers, regardless of whether those teachers ever actually instructed the children taking the tests.  While the recommendation states “at a reduced level overall”, the General Assembly has held the line at Student Growth being 50% of a teacher’s evaluation despite having multiple bills that proposed reducing that percentage.

Second, all other non-core teachers would also use shared attribution as the sole measure for the Student Growth component of their evaluation.  It’s always fascinating to evaluate music, art, and physical education teachers based on the math and reading tests the students are taking, isn’t it? For example, how, exactly, is that an appropriate measure of the marching & concert band director’s ability as a high-quality teacher?  And I know districts can’t wait to determine how to apply the shared attribution measure to and art teachers who teach students in 4-5 buildings or strings teachers who may visit small groups of students in 10 different buildings each week.  Would these teachers receive a small percentage of the value-added results from each of the buildings or simply have to take the overall district’s value-added rating?  And if this process is like all of the others that come out of ODE, they’ll simply tell local districts to “figure it out” because it’s a “local decision”.  If it was only that simple.

Moreover, with the administration of new tests this year causing value-added ratings to be “reset” this year and delayed well past January 2016, teachers and schools won’t even know “how they did” until over halfway through the new year and a teacher’s individual value-added history will be wiped out, replaced by this single year of new assessments.

Finally, the recommendation to “eliminate the use of student learning objective pre-tests” is just plain laughable.  The report mentions just prior to this recommendation that “Because teachers create and grade their own student learning objective tests, some claim there is an opportunity to manipulate student performance.”  Let’s be clear, the SLO process can certainly be questioned on many levels, but at least the existence of a pre-test to determine student knowledge provides teachers some very clear baseline data when they are asked to subsequently “predict” a growth score for students on the SLO post-test.  Without such pre-test data, the creation of growth targets would open itself to even greater question and scrutiny.

In the end, we give the report an overall grade of “F”.  The background information provided by Dr. Ross might inform the General Assembly and the public about the extreme amount of testing that is going on in schools and how all of the disconnected laws being passed are, in fact, the root of the problem.  Dr. Ross’s recommendations, however, do not go nearly far enough to have any demonstrable impact.  The fact that Dr. Ross presents himself as the knowledgeable expert about the testing problems and lays them out clearly in the first few pages of the report, only to follow that narrative with superficial fixes ultimately does more damage to the conversation around how to meaningfully reduce the amount of time Ohio’s students are required to spend on standardized testing.  Additionally, Ross’s unsolicited recommendations about changes to the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System would result in a more complicated and even more inaccurate measure of teacher performance than even the existing system has.

A first step by Dr. Ross?  Maybe, but it also feels distinctly like two steps back…