• WisBusiness

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Statewide school testing remake is best for students, educators and taxpayers

By Tom Still
When the statewide Next Generation Assessment Task Force gathered for an initial meeting, I asked for a show of hands among its 42 members: How many of you are generally happy with the current system for testing students? How many think it can be salvaged? How many want to replace it?

That straw poll result was an overwhelming vote to scrap the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examinations and start over. Nine months after the hands went up, the official conclusion is identical.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers has announced that Wisconsin will phase out its current system of testing student performance in grades three through eight and 10 in favor of a "balanced assessment system" that will more effectively guide teachers, parents and students -- and help prepare those students for college and the workforce.

In the process, it should also help businesses in search for workers with 21st century skills, and Wisconsin taxpayers who have a stake in more effective use of local, state and federal dollars.

The Next Generation Assessment Task Force was made up of 42 people from across Wisconsin, primarily educators but also citizen members of school boards and some business leaders. It was formed by then-Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster to examine the status quo, which aspires to meet state and federal requirements, and consider alternatives. It didn't take long for the group to conclude it was time to scrap the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examinations -- but considering what comes next was more complicated.

The task force agreed the state Department of Public Instruction should produce a system that focuses on three types of assessments, each of which provide different kinds of information to teachers, students and parents.

* Formative assessments: These are daily evaluation strategies, usually in the classroom itself, that provide immediate feedback.

* Benchmark assessments: These are administered periodically to gauge student progress or to evaluate how well a program is working.

* Summative assessments: These monitor national, state, district, school or even classroom progress. These may include end-of-course exams or college placement tests such as the ACT and the SAT.

Other states have remade their testing systems. Some, such as Oregon, have developed an Internet-based system, which dramatically shortens reporting time and allows for repeat tests for those who want to improve. Michigan requires the ACT test in its system, which lowers the statewide average score (a Wisconsin bragging right for decades) but serves to encourage more students to continue their education after high school. Other examples studied by the task force included Nebraska, which built a statewide assessment system from classroom and district best practices.

Wisconsin's new testing system will be built over time and the current exams will remain in place for two or three years. For many observers, the change cannot happen fast enough.

"A more complete assessment system that incorporates classroom, district and state testing, instead of one high-stakes test, will benefit students and offer accountability to the public," said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union. "State-level assessment is a necessary part of the balanced approach, and we need to make those examinations better measures of skills our students need to be successful as they move through school and into the workplace."

Bell added that assessments developed and delivered in the classroom and across school districts are also important, as they provide immediate guidance for instruction.

"Educators can use those results to monitor the impact of a classroom or district innovation, or a given set of resources," she said.

Groups that follow education reform in Wisconsin are also optimistic. They see it as a chance to raise standards to reflect the need for global competitiveness. It may eventually save some money because so many districts, unhappy with the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination, have purchased their own testing systems.

Another possible benefit: Attracting our fair share of federal dollars. Wisconsin ranks a miserable 49th among the 50 states in per capita federal spending on K-12 education, according to one recent study, but there are federal dollars available to help states improve school testing.

What will replace the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination remains to be seen. But the state is now poised to install a more innovative system -- similar to what other states have done. It can help students at the right times, help teachers do a better job, and provide the kind of accountability the public and private businesses demand.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He was co-chairman of the Next Generation Assessment Task Force.


Comments: 2

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