Delaware to launch ‘testing inventory’ for school assessments

 Gov. Jack Markell discusses testing at William Penn High School in New Castle. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/for Newsworks)

Gov. Jack Markell discusses testing at William Penn High School in New Castle. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/for Newsworks)

Gov. Jack Markell says Delaware students spend too much time on standardized tests, and that his administration can fix that.

How exactly? With a new “testing inventory” unveiled Thursday.

Over the next four months and at a cost of about $350,000 government employees will fan out across Delaware to take stock of every state, district, and school-administered assessment. Officials are then expected to eliminate redundant exams and curb testing time.

“Ineffective and unnecessary tests don’t provide students or educators or parents with valuable information and the take away valuable teaching time,” Markell said.

He won’t, however, eliminate one particularly high-profile test known as ‘Smarter Balanced’.

The Common Core aligned exam is being given statewide for the first time this year, and has triggered anxiety among teachers and parents who believe it will be used to punish underperforming schools. A group of parents Markell called a “small, but vocal minority” have pledged to opt their children out of the tests in protest.

Markell insisted the state needs Smarter Balanced to gauge student progress, and chastised parents who’ve opted their children out.

“I believe that this push for opting out is unproductive and I think it’s unfair to our young people,” said Markell. “Our educators, our school leaders, our parents, and for that matter our students deserve the information they need to understand how individual students are doing.”

Earl Jaques, head of the Delaware House’s Education Committee, drew an even harder line.

“To me, opt out is admitting failure,” said Jaques. “[It’s] saying, oh, I can’t measure up. I’m not good enough to be able to take this test. I can’t pass that test. That’s not the American way.”

Though Markell’s new initiative is unlikely to mollify the most vociferous opponents of standardized testing, the governor does seem to be seeking some middle ground on an issue that’s grown increasingly noisy.

In New Jersey, for instance, the teacher’s union there has financed a surging opt out movement. Anti-testing advocates on Long Island reportedly drew more than 1,000 protesters to a recent rally. Coalitions such as United Opt Out and Testing Resistance and Reform Spring are pushing efforts nationwide.

Markell also acknowledged growing dissatisfaction with the volume and purpose of standardized exams.

“We’ve heard from parents and we’ve certainly heard from teachers who are concerned about the amount of time that is spent on how those tests are ultimately used,” Markell said.

But Gov. Markell and Mark Murphy, Delaware secretary of education, who was also on hand, defended the philosophy behind standardized tests and said they supply vital information to teachers and policy makers about who’s learning what and who isn’t.

The new testing inventory initiative will likely target older state exams, such as the End of Course evaluations administered in high schools. The state will also encourage districts to scrutinize their tests to make sure there is limited overlap.

It’s less likely the state will eliminate subjects tests in areas not covered by Smarter Balanced, which itself only assesses math and English language arts.

“We want to make sure there’s some sort of assessment in all subjects in the tested grades,” said Lindsay O’Mara, the governor’s policy advisor on education.

Penny Schwinn, the Department of Education’s chief accountability and performance officer, said New York was the only other state to undertake such a comprehensive survey of school assessments.

Also on the testing front, Markell said the Delaware and U.S. Departments of Education are working “on a positive path forward” regarding the use of Smarter Balanced results to measure teachers.

Last year, the state asked for a one-year delay on tying Smarter Balanced scores to teacher evaluations. Last week, Newsworks/WHYY obtained a letter signed by 24 state legislators and endorsed by the state teachers union asking Markell to request another year-long delay.

Officials indicated there would be news to come on the issue within a week.

Delaware students began taking Smarter Balanced exams on Tuesday. The testing window runs through early June.

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