Delaware delays new science exam amid over-testing concerns

 (<a href=Students taking test photo via ShutterStock) " title="test-taker-169" width="640" height="360"/>

(Students taking test photo via ShutterStock)

Officials nixed a proposal that would have significantly increased the number of hours students spend on state-mandated science and social studies tests.

In late January, Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King visited Delaware and praised the state’s push to reduce standardized testing.

At the same time, unbeknownst to most, state officials were mulling a proposal designed to create state-mandated science and social studies tests for grades 3-10. That plan would have increased the amount of time Delaware students spend taking statewide standardized tests by roughly 25 percent, and contradicted the spirit of King’s kudos.

Weeks later, the plan was dead.

Push back from district leaders–combined with broader pressures to reduce the state’s testing burden–eventually prompted officials to scrap the proposed testing changes and reboot their search for new exams. Delaware decided to pull a request for proposals that would have led to new science and social studies exams for the 2016-17 school year.

“We’re closing that RFP with no action taken,” said Michael Watson, the state’s Chief Academic Officer.

The state will put out a new RFP in the coming months, said Watson. The state is still shopping for a new science test that will align with the Next Generation Science Standards, which Delaware adopted in 2013. The updated plan is to roll out that new exam as a field test in 2017-18, one year later than anticipated. It will replace the DCAS science exam currently given in grades 5, 8, and 10. In addition, Delaware has paused its search for a new social studies exam to replace the DCAS social studies test.

Whatever test the state ends up choosing, officials no longer intend to increase the amount of hours students spend taking statewide assessments for science and social studies. For each subject area, the state will test students once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school, as is required by federal law.

“The department is very clear that we do not want to make additional testing burdens,” Watson said.

Delaware’s abrupt about-face illustrates the pressure states face around assessment decisions in an era of testing backlash.

Delaware was one of the 13 states to receive warning letters last year from the federal government due to low participation rates on state tests. Last year, roughly 10 percent of students skipped state-mandated exams in math and English. Meanwhile, state legislators overwhelmingly approved a measure that would have allowed parents to opt their children out of those very exams.

Governor Jack Markell vetoed the opt-out bill, but he has acknowledged growing dissatisfaction with the volume and implementation of standardized tests. Last March, Markell launched a statewide testing inventory–the object of Acting Secretary King’s praise–in an attempt to eliminate redundant and unnecessary exams.

Despite those public proclamations, Delaware officials were poised to significantly increase the number of state-mandated testing hours. In a briefing last fall with district testing coordinators, officials indicated the state would roll out new science and social studies tests that would be given every year from grade 3 to grade 10.

Right now, the state tests students for science in grades 5, 8, and 10. It administers social studies tests in grades 4, 7, and 11.

Testing both subjects in grades 3 through 10 would add roughly 14 testing hours to the state’s assessment schedule. At the moment, Delaware students take between 52.5 and 61.5 hours of state-mandated tests over the course of their academic careers. Under the changes proposed, students would have sat for between 66.5 and 77.5 hours of state exams.

The impending increase rankled district testing coordinators, who have been told to slash district- and school-level exams in an attempt to reduce total testing time.

In early January, Penny Schwinn, the state’s Chief Accountability and Performance Officer, left the department. Soon after, leaders in the Delaware Department of Education began to reconsider the increase in science and social studies tests. They ultimately decided against a bump in testing time.

Officials also believe delaying the new science test by another year will give educators needed time to adapt. Delaware adopted the Next Generation Science Standards in 2013. Science teachers across the state started piloting new lessons aligned with the standards last school year. The pilots have continued this year.

The transition to Next Gen has garnered less attention than Delaware’s switch to Common Core math and reading standards in 2010. Still, state leaders are wary of rolling out a batch of tests aligned to the new standards too soon. Many states, including Delaware, saw big spikes in anti-testing sentiment and educator agita when introducing new tests aligned with Common Core.

“We’ve learned lessons for the Common Core,” said Watson. “We want to make sure teachers are ready before an assessment shift.”

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