SCUSD Observer

Sacramento, California

DUMP Benchmark Testing!

By Larry Tagg

Lately, when teachers have met to discuss unnecessary expenditures in the Sacramento Unified School District, the first person to raise his or her hand always points to the ALS Benchmark Tests as a big waste of money.

If any other district expenditure is held in lower regard by high school teachers than the ALS test, I am unaware of it. If any other days are seen as more worthless than the four days the district mandates for ALS testing, I have not heard of them. If there is a slam dunk where cutting the fat in the budget is concerned, it is certainly the ALS tests, and it has been so for years, ever since their advent three years ago. Yet the ALS Benchmark Tests are still on the budget, and the district administration still fights to keep them.

They are defended, I have been told, as “predictors” of scores on the year-end California Standardized Tests at the end of the year. Yet, I have talked to one head of a highly-regarded high school program in the district whose teachers analyzed the numbers. Their conclusion was that there was a very poor correlation between success on the ALS tests and success on the CST tests.

I detect, too, a certain amount of “snake oil” in the whole idea of an expensive “predictive” test. One has only to develop questions on standards that are tested on the year-end CST tests. Anyone can do it. In fact, the English department at my high school, Hiram Johnson, did do it. The year before the ALS was introduced, we were encouraged by the district to develop our own scope and sequence, curriculum, and periodic benchmark tests. We planned, devised, and executed our own rigorous benchmark tests during the 2005-2006 school year. We were united as a department, and convinced that we were accomplishing something important. The following year, with no notice, the district mandated the ALS Test.

Since the year they were introduced, there has been almost no development on the ALS tests: each of the quarterly tests has been almost exactly the same as the year before. The readings are the same (all are more than seventy-five years old so that they are out of copyright), and the questions are virtually the same, although some questions are moved around and, in some cases, one new question has been substituted (per forty-question test).

The administration of the tests is slipshod. For instance, one year ALS delivered eighth grade tests to our tenth graders by mistake. The tests always arrive by surprise, take a day to administer, and then disappear. The fourth test arrives at year’s end, too late to “predict” anything. The feedback on scores is delivered by means of a website, DataDirector; teachers have to be trained to access the scores successfully, and it is never announced when the scores are available. In fact, there have been large gaps where DataDirector was not functioning, when it was impossible to get access to the scores.

That the test is largely a waste of time is bad enough; that it is, in these tough times, so expensive is unsupportable. The estimates of the cost are extremely hard to come by—the district seems to be loath to publish them. The estimates I have heard have been upwards of a million dollars a year. If so, something like ten teachers—or nurses, or librarians, or counselors, or social workers—could be re-hired for the same money that we spend on these tests.


Written by scusdobserver

March 28, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Benchmark Testing

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