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Required testing doesn't devour instruction time, audit shows

SANDY — The findings in a recent audit by the Canyons School District challenges the common assumption that state- and district-required testing devours instructional time.

Those exams consume less than 3 percent of instruction time, according to the audit: 1.2 percent of the school year in elementary schools, 2.7 percent in middle school and 1.7 percent in high school.

By comparison, students spend 12 percent of school time at lunch, 4.5 percent at recess and 27.3 percent on math instruction, the audit found.

Amber Roderick-Landward, Canyons District's instructional supports director, said it is helpful to have data to put the debate in proper context.

"Of course we hear the rhetoric that the public hears from our teachers, from our parents that 'It seems like there's a lot more testing.' We had suspected there really can't be as much as folks are saying because we know what we're requiring," Roderick-Landward said.

"To actually see the numbers, up in front of us, it was very confirming, very exciting," she said.

The past two years, the school district has encouraged teachers to view assessment through a different lens, she said.

"I think testing has this connotation of high-stakes accountability, that it's an event and that for kids, it's really nerve-wracking and for teachers, feeling like they're losing instructional time. We've tried to shift our lens to say assessing is part of teaching and that's what allows us to be agile as instructors by getting that information on a regular basis to be able to adjust our instruction. That's just what good teaching is," Roderick-Landward said.

The audit was performed by Hal Sanderson, the district's research and assessment director. Ninety-six percent of the district's elementary schools and 75 percent of its middle schools responded to a survey that examined published test-taking times and actual experiences.

The audit also outlined time required by state-required assessments for high school students in 2016-17.

The audit applied solely to the Canyons School District. All Utah school districts participate in state year-end assessments, but district-level tests vary in form and scope.

While Canyons District has lower rates of students opting out of state testing, a growing numbers of parents in the district have allowed students to skip the exams, Roderick-Landward said.

Statewide, opt-out rates on the end-of-level Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence tests more than tripled between 2014 and 2017, according to Utah State Board of Education data.

Some critics say the tests are not tied to students' grades so they don't want to put their children through the experience of what some consider stressful "high-stakes testing."

It's one reason Canyons District has attempted to change the conversation about testing, Roderick-Landward said. The consistent message has been to consider testing a verb not a noun, she said.

Opting out of state testing results in less reliable data to guide instructional, training and resource allocation decisions, she said.

It also deprives students of the experience of taking tests, which has greater significance as students move toward high school graduation and face college admissions tests.

"The unintended consequence of that is decreased perseverance and decreased cognitive stamina. We've got to figure out a way to bring those things back. If we're not teaching those skills, then we're doing our students a disservice," Roderick-Landward said.

While the audit determined that students "spend very little time taking assessments when compared to the amount of time they devote to recess, lunch and math instruction," it determined elementary teachers spent more time scoring tests in the 2016-17 school year, the report states.

This was due to the implementation of a new district writing assessment that placed greater demands on teachers' time at the start of the school year.

"By the end of the year, scoring speed improved. In spring 2017, teachers reported spending one to four hours scoring writing assessments. This equates to two to three minutes per student essay. The average scoring time should continue to decline in the 2017-2018 as teachers become more familiar with the rubric and scoring process," the audit said.

The report said elementary teachers were also responsible for scoring the fall Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills math assessment.

"In fall 2016, math scoring took an estimated two to three hours, which was a real concern for teachers. To ease the burden, the Instructional Supports Department implemented new DIBELS math scoring procedures. Scoring is now conducted by a district testing team and supported by a software program developed by Information Technology Department programmers," the report states.