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Idaho scales back testing

Wed., Sept. 19, 2007

State testing began Monday in Idaho’s schools, but for the first time, second-graders weren’t included.

The state Board of Education voted last week to exclude the grade from taking the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, leaving the testing to grades three through 10.

It’s one of a series of steps the board is taking to clean up its finances. Coupled with axing the optional winter round of testing, cutting second-graders from the ISAT should save the board $2.4 million, spokesman Mark Browning said.

“It’s financially driven decision,” Browning said.

Educators praised the moves – not for the money saved but for the time and stress it saves teachers and students.

“We’re really happy to have another year under their belts before they start the ISAT testing,” said Kristin Gorringe, principal at Coeur d’Alene’s Winton Elementary. “It was a lot for a 7-year-old.”

But the question of how much testing is too much isn’t as easily agreed upon. The ISAT – a computerized, multiple-choice test – is required twice a year: the federal No Child Left Behind Act mandates spring testing, and state law calls for fall testing. Most districts used the optional winter round to retest struggling students. Now, only high school juniors or seniors who haven’t passed the exam can take the test in winter.

Teachers at a middle school near Twin Falls started a petition last week asking the state to end required fall testing, too. Dan Nicklay, principal of the Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, said he signed it “John Hancock-style” and placed it in the staff room.

“It filled up in a hurry,” he said. “This fall testing is ridiculous. There’s no reason for it.”

Students are tested in late April and early May – just weeks before school lets out. Testing them upon their return in September is redundant, Nicklay said.

“It’s utterly superfluous,” he said. “We need more instruction time, not more test time.”

Coeur d’Alene School District Superintendent Harry Amend said he doesn’t favor dropping any of the tests. But if a grade had to go, second grade makes sense because the kids are the youngest, he said. Fall testing should remain mandatory, Amend said.

Congressional discussions about reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act are partly focused on the need for students to be measured on growth instead of a proficiency standard. The best way to do that is to test in the fall and spring, Amend said. Too many students transfer during the summer to use spring test scores as the only measure, he said.

Some educators’ complaints about mandatory testing lie in the logistics of finding space in which to give tests. Charter academy students take the tests in the school’s only computer lab – displacing the teacher who uses the room.

Once testing begins at Post Falls High next week, computer labs will be open only to test-takers.

“At the secondary level, that’s a big deal,” said Barney Brewton, directory of elementary education for the Post Falls School District.

Greg Lanting, principal of Filer Middle School in southern Idaho, where the petition started, said making the fall test optional would keep everyone happy.

“If people feel it’s valuable, I think they should go ahead and do it,” he said. “But my staff doesn’t find it valuable.”

Browning said the state board is facing budget shortfalls stemming from its contract with a new testing coordinator, Data Recognition Corp. The board administered tests last year that the state Legislature hadn’t earmarked money for, and the cost of the new version of the test was more than expected, Browning said.

Earlier this month, Gov. Butch Otter ordered the board to reexamine its contract with the company to help get the board’s budget back in the black.

Browning said he doesn’t know whether the board would support making fall testing optional. The change would require legislative approval.

“We’re just operating under the guidelines of what we have to do right now,” he said.

A state task force is looking at the number of required school tests to see what they measure and how well.

“The primary question is, ‘Are we getting the information we need from these tests?’ It’s not ‘are we giving too many?’ ” Browning said.


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