With more than 270 tests at Pittsburgh schools this year, when is enough enough?

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Get those No. 2 pencils ready.

In the Pittsburgh Public Schools this school year, a total of more than 270 tests -- required by the state or district -- will be given to students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

In fourth grade alone, there are 33 required tests, just shy of one a week on average and the most of any grade level. That's still about 10 fewer tests than fourth-graders took last year.

The district has no choice for some of them; the state mandates them.

In fourth grade, the state requires the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests in math, reading and science (three tests), and the GRADE test, a standardized reading test published by Pearson required for recipients of Keystone to Opportunity reading grants (three tests).

Beyond that, fourth-graders also take DIBELS Next, a brief oral standardized test of reading fluency (three tests); reading module tests that are hybrids created by the reading publisher Macmillan/McGraw-Hill and district staff (15 tests); reading unit tests, also hybrids, (five tests); and math benchmark tests created by district staff (four tests).

Some tests help to diagnose students' needs or see if they've learned what's been taught. The reading modules and unit tests also account for most of the reading grade. The PSSA results are part of teacher evaluations.

In addition to the more than 270 tests taken by all or many students in one grade or another, there are more than 50 other standardized tests given, including those for students with reading difficulties or who take world language, career and technology education, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

How many tests are enough?

"I'm going to be reviewing the testing schedule," said Pittsburgh superintendent Linda Lane.

"Rather than pick out which ones need to go, you have to look holistically at the whole thing. Are there overlaps here? Do we really need all of these?" she said.

This year, the district cut out 60 tests at the end of reading modules. The frequency of some other tests has been reduced.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said she is glad the district is working to reduce the number of required tests.

"I know teachers have complained about the number of tests not just in our district but other districts, too," she said.

In addition to the tests themselves, time is spent preparing for the tests.

"I do not advocate test prep," said Ms. Lane. "Teaching kids how to fill out a bubble sheet? Yes. I don't think you spend period after period after that."

Throughout the nation, there is tension between the desire to maximize teaching time and the growing demands for more data from tests to show how schools are doing, guide instruction and rate teachers.

The drive to data has been fueled by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, followed by federal Race to the Top grants and other grant requirements.

In the first two years of a five-year grant, Pennsylvania has received $73 million in the federal Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program and distributes the money as Keystones to Opportunity grants.

To get the money, the state had to agree to evaluation and selected GRADE tests as a requirement.

In addition, the stakes on tests have risen for teachers statewide because the students' results on some of the tests will be used in teacher evaluations, beginning this school year.


Pittsburgh at 'the high end'

Looking at Pittsburgh's grade-by-grade list of tests, Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said, "They are a perfect example of why parents, teachers, community leaders across the nation are saying enough is enough to testing overkill.

"The notion that students in any grade need to be tested 10, 20, 30 or more times to find out what they've learned and to improve education is insane."

While he hasn't taken a systematic look, he said Pittsburgh's is "at the high end of anything we've ever seen."

Jessie Ramey, a Point Breeze parent of two who attend Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill, said, "As a parent, I'm really worried about what all of this testing is doing to our kids. All of that testing and test prep are taking away from real learning time."

Ms. Ramey, who writes the Yinzercation blog and is active in Great Public Schools-Pittsburgh, was part of a movement to opt out of state tests last year. The campaign attracted a small number of participants, but Ms. Ramey is hoping it will grow in the spring.

While some tests give teachers immediate feedback, the results of required state tests -- the PSSA tests in math and reading in grades 3-8, science in grades 4 and 8 and writing in grades 5 and 8 as well as the new end-of-course Keystone Exams in Algebra 1, literature and biology -- arrive long after they are taken.

The Keystones potentially could replace some high school finals, but districts didn't receive the 2012-13 individual student results until Sept. 5, after the next school year already had begun.

Alan Lesgold, dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, said, "Those tests solve the state's problem, but they don't necessarily solve the problem of coaching teachers from month-to-month."

So other, district-required tests are given to help gauge ongoing progress in a timely manner.


The GRADE: grind or good?

The Yinzercation blog recently called attention to the GRADE test -- which stands for Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation -- in a post written by an anonymous Pittsburgh teacher and picked up in a Washington Post education writer's blog on Oct. 6.

The teacher noted how disheartened the 11-year-olds were taking the 106-question test with confusing questions.

After 57 questions, the teacher wrote, a double period was almost over. "They were about to go home, having entered the classroom feeling strong and ready to learn, about to leave feeling, in their words, 'stupid.' They had lost two full periods of real teaching/learning. What had they gained? Really, what?"

Robert Kirkpatrick, vice president of measurement services for Pearson, said most students can take the untimed GRADE test in 60 to 90 minutes.

He said the test, published in 2001, may seem long, but that is so it can accurately assess all of the skills research shows are important for reading.

Pittsburgh must give GRADE three times a year in grades 3-6 and 9-11. With just two versions available for each level, students take the same version more than once in a school year.

Lisa Yonek, district curriculum supervisor in reading, said the GRADE results come with a "really nice diagnostic read-out that really helps teachers to pinpoint where the problems or some of the issues may be."


Get ready, kindergartners

Required tests in Pittsburgh start in kindergarten with seven assessments, including children's first foray into a paper-and-pencil standardized test, the TerraNova, a national test published by CTB/McGraw Hill Education, given near the end of the year. Now in its third consecutive year in the district, it also is given in grades 1 and 2.

Because state tests don't start until third grade, Ms. Yonek said without the TerraNova, "We weren't really getting vital information until third grade."

Asked about the TerraNova, Shula Nedley, a consultant who previously headed assessment in the state Department of Education and the city schools, said, "I have issues with standardized testing for kids below third grade. I think it should be more informal. The teacher is a good judge of is the student on the path to learning."

Another early assessment is DIBELS Next -- which stands for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills -- given three times a year in kindergarten as well as in grades 1-5. DIBELS is given one-on-one and has up to three parts, depending on the grade level, each of which takes about a minute.

Ms. Nedley, Mr. Lesgold and Ms. Yonek all said DIBELS is a good use of time.

Mr. Lesgold said, "People in the reading support world and the reading teaching world pretty well know what you have to do when you see a particular [DIBELS] reading score."

Kindergartners also take a district-developed kindergarten assessment. At the start of the school year, the child and parent meet with the teacher to find out what the child knows and needs. The assessment is repeated two more times in the school year.

While he noted he hadn't seen the assessment, Mr. Lesgold said, "There's certainly a lot of stuff you really need to know about kids to figure out where they're at when they come to kindergarten. Having your own approach for figuring that out makes sense."


Modulating the modules

In grades 1-5, more than half of the other tests are aimed at gauging reading progress.

Getting a handle on reading in the early years is critical. Research shows that children who do not know how to read by third grade often struggle academically thereafter.

Last year in grades 1-5, students had 25 to 30 reading module tests in each grade level. This year, the number dropped to 15. Each module test takes about 45 minutes to an hour.

"We really thought that losing about an hour every week on assessment was a bit much," said Ms. Yonek.

She said the same skills and strategies still are tested but on fewer tests.

With the current mix of reading assessments, Ms. Yonek said, "I don't think we're over-assessing."

Ms. Nedley said she doesn't see the reading module and unit tests as "being intrusive at all," adding, "We want teachers to assess students on what they just taught them."

In grades 6-12, about a third of the tests are midterms and final exams in core subjects, which count for part of the grade.

These district-made tests -- which the district calls curriculum-based assessments or CBAs -- make the list because students enrolled in the same subject take the same test no matter what the school or teacher.

Mr. Lesgold said even Pitt has common finals in some courses, saying, "It does allow you to have a sense of how things are going. It also stimulates a little bit more collective thinking about what's important to teach."

Pittsburgh also gives tests called Classroom Diagnostic Tools -- CDTs -- which are offered by the state but not required. The computerized tests are given twice a year in grades 6-11 in reading/literature, math and science.

Lisa Augustin, Pittsburgh director of assessment, said the CDTs yield detailed information on the growth and needs of each student and link to resources to help improve instruction.

While some of the tests are useful, Ms. Nedley said she thinks some may be duplicative, and Mr. Lesgold said it's possible to have a "little more than you need."

But Mr. Lesgold said, "The solution to that is not politically viable. Nobody is going to be willing to take the state out of the picture or the schools out of the picture."

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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