Student Data

Fifth-grade students look over instructions in their Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students booklets before starting the tests in March 2013 at Mountain View Elementary School in Mills, Wyo.

DAN CEPEDA/For The Gazette

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — On many political issues, the gulf between President Barack Obama and the average Wyoming voter couldn’t be larger. But when it comes to standardized testing in K-12 schools, both the president and the state appear to be on the same page.

Over the weekend, Obama released a video calling for a cap on the amount of standardized testing students across the country take of no more than 2 percent of the total time spent in the classroom.

“In moderation, smart, strategic tests can help us measure our kids’ progress in school,” Obama said. “But I also hear from parents who rightly worry about too much testing, and from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning. I want to fix that.”

The president’s statement was warmly received by the Wyoming Department of Education, which has sought to address the question of how much to test students going forward. His statement also hews closely to the views of the Wyoming Assessment Task Force, which was created by the state Legislature this year to specifically address Wyoming’s testing needs.

The task force has met seven times over the last four months to discuss future recommendations for Wyoming standardized tests. It released a summary of those recommendations on Oct. 15, and among them is a proposal that not only mirrors Obama’s call for a cap on standardized testing time, but goes even further.

“The recommendation out of that task force is to cap the amount of time students spend on summative assessments to 1 percent or less of overall class time,” said Dicky Shanor, chief of staff for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow. “That certainly is consistent with the president’s new proposal, and hopefully what it will do is maximize class time and allow our students to take meaningful assessments that will inform instruction.”

Shanor noted that, even prior to the task force’s recommendation, the state has already taken steps to cut the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests. Earlier this year, the Legislature voted to scrap the SAWS, or Student Assessment of Writing Skills, which was previously administered each spring to the state’s third-, fifth- and seventh-graders.

“The impetus for that was concern over over-testing,” Shanor said. “Going forward, we will have PAWS (the Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students) through 2017, but then we will transition into a new assessment. What that assessment will be is still open for discussion, but there are a lot of different ways people are addressing these new performance standards and how to align performance to those standards.”

Kathy Vetter is the president of the Wyoming Education Association and a member of the state’s assessment task force. She said it was edifying to hear Obama address the same concerns that the state’s teachers’ union has had with regard to too much testing in the state’s schools.

“It was nice to hear from the very top that they’re recognizing we’re over-testing students under the No Child Left Behind,” Vetter said. “I think it goes a long way in pointing out that we have put an overemphasis on testing, and putting that overemphasis on testing has decreased the amount of time we spend teaching and learning.”

At the same time, however, Vetter said she believes the 1 percent goal set by the task force is just as achievable as Obama’s 2 percent suggestion. And individual district numbers may help to bear that out.

Steve Newton, the director of instruction for Laramie County School District 1, said testing times in his district are already below the 2 percent threshold suggested by Obama, and may even be below the 1 percent recommended by the state task force.

“My quick math tells me 2 percent of all the hours a student is in school would equate to about 26 hours of testing,” Newton said. “If you combine the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) tests with the PAWS state assessment they take, a reasonable average test time would be about 11 hours. That’s certainly below the 2 percent.”

But while standardized tests are frequently maligned, Newton said they do have a place in the day-to-day learning environment. For example, he said, the MAP tests can be useful not only for keeping track of students’ progress, but also for quickly identifying students who may stand to benefit from more one-on-one attention.

“We can use the MAP to determine which of our students require an individualized reading program,” Newton said. “That’s an opportunity for us to use it as a screening assessment to identify kids who need extra help to give them a bit of a boost. Is that a good use of a standardized assessment? I believe it is.”

The Wyoming Assessment Task Force will present its full report and recommendations to both the Legislature’s Joint Education Interim Committee and the Select Committee on Statewide Education Accountability later this week. That meeting is set for 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission building in Casper.