ANDERSON – On any given day, visitors to Anderson Elementary School will see students engaged in the learning of language arts, math, science and social studies.
But last year, depending on their grade levels, some of those students gave up as many as 43 hours — or the equivalent of more than a work week — for testing.
That was too much, Anderson Community Schools Superintendent Terry Thompson decided after hearing how Fort Wayne Community Schools were able to reduce their seat time for testing.
"As a team of educators, we assessed the amount of time being spent on testing. Our teachers' focus has to be on literacy and first-time instruction, and we made some changes to align our practice with our philosophy," he said.
ACS Assistant Superintendent Ryan Glaze agreed.
“We’re obviously spending way too much time assessing, and we need to spend more time teaching,” he said. “The kids were sick of testing last year.”
The amount of seat time for testing varies from grade to grade, depending on the tests mandated by the state at a specific level, the tasks necessary to complete the test and the time necessary to situate students and collect and distribute materials necessary for the test.
Among the tests students take in a given school year, depending on their grade levels, are ISTEP+ and IREAD-3.
The district also administers ISTAR, which measures kindergarten readiness, and the 8-Step, an in-house assessment given throughout the school year to measure language arts, math, science and social studies knowledge.
Though seat time needed to be reduced, Glaze said, one area in which he was unwilling to compromise was reading assessments. ACS is one of the few districts in the state that administers reading assessments from pre-school through 12th grade.
“Reading is the key to success, and we always want to make sure we’re teaching reading, regardless of the grade level. And in Anderson, we believe you always have to teach reading,” he said.
Thompson charged Karen Heffelmire, director of Assessment and Testing Services for ACS, with collecting and assessing the data to determine how much time students were spending on testing and find ways to reduce that time if it exceeded the optimal amount, which is considered 2 percent.
“I think President (Barack) Obama was the one to throw that number out there, and it’s kind of been accepted,” she said.
“On the one hand, it seems like, wow, all we do is test our students,” she said. “We were doing a lot of assessments and in places where you didn’t think they were doing a lot of assessments.”
But that also presented opportunities for reductions.
Heffelmire said as she examined the data, there were a few surprises, especially in terms of who was being tested. At nearly 46 hours, 10th-graders endured the most testing in the 2015-16 school year, while 12th-graders aren’t tested at all.
Advanced placement and SAT tests were not included in the district’s evaluation.
“It was a bad year to be a sophomore," Heffelmire said. "Tenth grade was the only grade to be double dosed,” Heffelmire said. That time has been reduced this school year by almost half to about 24 hours.
Though testing can be a good tool to give teachers a sense of how well students are grasping the material they are taught, the creep in the amount of time spent on it is the result of pressure from post-secondary institutions and business leaders, Heffelmire said.
However, she said, the amount of seat time can be reduced with something as simple as changing from pencil and paper to computers.
What does the district want to do with the recaptured time?
“In the elementaries, we are desperately trying to find time to teach STEM-related subject areas,” Glaze said. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
Matthew Goens, principal at Anderson Elementary, said even though the recaptured seat time may be minutes at a time, he believes added on to other instructional time it actually can impact student learning and achievement.
“I do believe getting some of that time back for instruction can make a difference for our students,” he said.
Follow Rebecca R. Bibbs on Twitter at @RebeccaB_THB, or call 640-4883.
The standardized testing industry
Dominated by four companies — Pearson Education, Educational Testing Service, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill – the standardized testing industry generates almost $2 billion for the economy, according to a 2015 report by Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy.
These companies also spent about $20 million between 2009 to 2014 to lobby state and national lawmakers, persuading them to back policies that mandate student assessments, the center reported.