School Testing: Changes needed in Michigan 2016.01.27

By Dr. John S. Geisler, Professor Emeritus, Western Michigan University

Recent changes in the Michigan mandatory school testing program leads to the following headlines:

• Third Grade State Assessment Test Takes 7 Hours to Administer

• Michigan 11th Graders Need 11+ Hours for Mandatory State Tests

• Vendor for New State Test - M-STEP - Gets Contract Worth $107,300,000

• SAT Replaces the ACT in 2016

Confused about mandatory testing in Michigan public schools—MEAP, M-STEP, SAT, ACT, AYP, PSAT, AP examinations, Work Keys and Smarter Balance?  Do you wonder why the Michigan legislature did not fund the Smarter Balance for the assessment of Common Core Standards test this past year and caused the Michigan Student Test for Educational Progress (M-STEP) to be rushed into production? (The vendor for M-STEP now has a three-year contract to administer and score this test—$107,300,000). The M-STEP was to be the interim state test for this past year. What will happen at the end of the three-year cycle? Will a new test be developed? Who is the vendor and how did they determine the content of the test? Is the test valid? Is it reliable? Was this test field-tested? These are some concerns that need attention. 

Also, the ACT has been used for several years in Michigan schools. In 2016 the SAT will replace the ACT. Why the change? Some schools aligned their entire testing program with the ACT and administered the Explore and Plan tests (both ACT products) on a regular basis. Could it be that the primary reason for the switch was that the SAT was less costly than the competition? The State School Superintendent indicated that the SAT “…is more aligned to Michigan’s content standards…” (Michigan Department of Education, January, 2015). If so, why are there no scores for English, for Science, for other fields of study? In 2015 the SAT reported three scores: Reading, Writing and Mathematics.

In 2016 the SAT will undergo a major revision, meaning that Michigan public school students will be faced with not only a new test, but a newly revised test. If the SAT is to be used to measure students’ performance in school-related subjects, the content validity of the SAT is questionable. The SAT was designed to predict college success—not the achievement of all students across all curricula.

The ACT reports five major scores: Mathematics, Science Reasoning, Reading, English and a Composite Score as well as subtest scores for the following: English, Usage/Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills; Mathematics, Pre-Algebra, Algebra and Coordinate Geometry, Plane Geometry and Trigonometry; Reading, Social Studies and Science, and Arts and Literature. This is excellent coverage of the state mandated Michigan Merit Curriculum and a boon to teachers in all subject areas since teachers can use test results to improve instruction.

Standardized tests must have as their primary (and some would argue—only) purpose the well-being of students! This is the missing factor in the rush to test every student, almost every year. All other rationale and justification for testing of students pales by comparison.

The use of test data for other purposes (political, administrative or social) has little merit. It is interesting to note that of all the stakeholders in the assessment “game,” the test takers are virtually ignored.  Assessment data that does not relate to students’ welfare is not justified. Testing programs must be student-centered with students and parents receiving thorough and complete individual interpretation of scores. 

Questions about tests and test scores should be: “What assessments are best for our students?” Is the school system using the results of the testing program to better inform teachers about instruction? Do the test results accurately reflect what is being taught in schools? Will the test results assist our students as they progress through the school system and help them (and their parents) make informed decisions?

Answers to these questions should guide decision-makers in developing testing programs. If not, why should students perform at their maximum levels? Students (and parents) are not now invested in test results because they do not see any connection between test results and instructional, educational, curricular and career decisions. That is why there is a parental movement to have children not participate in standardized testing programs. 

In 1787 Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”

I would ask all those in authority who make decisions regarding assessment programs: Remember the students and be generous and favorable to them. They are the primary reason we have schools and school programs.