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Some DC education activists, teachers, and parents are concerned that standardized testing and test prep are taking too much time away from instruction. But there’s no hard data on how much time schools here devote to testing, and it’s not clear education officials are planning to collect it.

Testing has been a contentious national issue for years, and the debate has only gotten more heated with the arrival this year of tougher tests aligned with the new Common Core State Standards in DC and dozens of states. In some states, particularly New York, parents have been “opting out” of standardized tests in significant numbers, saying they’re a waste of kids’ and teachers’ time.

Even US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has generally advocated testing, said last year that “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.” And Congress is currently considering changing federal law to put less emphasis on the results of standardized tests.

While there’s no sign of an opt-out movement in DC, there are increasing rumblings of discontent. Ruth Wattenberg, the Ward 3 representative on DC’s State Board of Education (SBOE), says “too much testing” and the narrowing of the curriculum it has caused were the two issues that had the most resonance with parents during her campaign.

A panel of award-winning teachers appearing before the SBOE in March raised similar concerns, with some saying testing had gotten out of hand. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re past the tipping point,” said DCPS elementary math teacher Mike Mangiaracina.

One DCPS parent, Mike Showalter, complained to the DC Council’s education committee that “in 2nd grade, children and teachers begin a relentless stream of testing”—much of it useless, he said. Showalter said he considered opting his 3rd grader out of Common Core tests in May but decided against it because he was unable to convince other parents to join him and didn’t want to “create more hassle for my child’s teacher.”

Parents’ questions about testing prompted DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to appoint a task force to study the issue 18 months ago. Henderson said the task force would release its findings by the end of 2014. But there’s been no word on its progress, and a DCPS spokesperson failed to respond to an inquiry about it .

The SBOE recently called on DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education to assess how much time schools are spending on testing and test prep. They also want to know how much attention schools are paying to subjects that aren’t tested, like social studies and science.

When I asked OSSE officials if they planned to follow up on the SBOE’s recommendations, a spokesperson said the agency understands the board’s concerns and is interested in ensuring that schools have access to “a rich curriculum.” But she said nothing about whether OSSE would collect the requested data.

How much time do DC students spend taking tests?

Last year, a report that looked at various urban school districts found that DCPS students spent less time than average on testing. For example, according to the report, DCPS 3rd graders spent 14.3 hours per year taking tests, compared to an average of 16.6 hours.

But those figures were based on the amount of time school systems allocate for testing on their calendars. Teachers surveyed in the report said they actually lose much more instructional time to testing than the calendars indicate, perhaps more than twice as much in elementary school.

Some DCPS teachers have estimated their students spend more than 10% of the school year taking mandatory tests. Mangiaracina told the SBOE that students at his school, Brent Elementary, are tested once every 11 days. That’s about twice as much as average, according to one study of 14 school districts .

Angelo Parodi, a 5th grade teacher at John Eaton Elementary, said that testing took so much time this year that he wasn’t able to cover nearly as much material as in years past. “This is the first time we didn’t get to the civil rights movement,” he said. “We barely made it to World War II.”

Common Core tests are just the tip of the iceberg

The Common Core-aligned tests that DCPS and dozens of states began giving this year have been a lightning rod for testing opponents. This year, students took them in two rounds, in March and May, and the company administering the tests said they would take about eight hours in total. But a math teacher at Wilson High School, Joseph Herbert, said the first round alone consumed almost eight hours.

Next year, the tests, known as PARCC, will be about 90 minutes shorter and given in one 30-day testing window.

But the PARCC tests, which OSSE requires all DC schools to give to students in 3rd through 8th grade and some high school students, are only the tip of the iceberg. Studies have found that local tests, such as those required by DCPS or individual charter schools, make up the majority of the assessments students take.

Both DCPS and many charter schools administer perhaps four or five other kinds of standardized tests throughout the year, partly to assess growth and partly to predict how students will do on PARCC tests.

Teachers also spend an undetermined amount of time preparing students for standardized tests, as well as giving their own quizzes, midterms, and finals.

Tests can disrupt school for everyone

DCPS and OSSE say standardized tests cause little disruption to normal school routines. One DCPS official told a concerned parent in an email that a longer testing window has allowed schools to rotate smaller groups of students through tests rather than testing everyone at the same time, “so that instruction, student services, field trips, science fairs, performances and the like can continue.” But some teachers disagree.

"Some schools shut down when testing comes,” Kristina Kellogg, a DCPS teacher, told the SBOE. “There’s no field trips, extracurricular activities. Everything is in the box of testing mode.”

Testing can disrupt instruction even for students who aren’t being tested. Teachers aren’t allowed to proctor exams for their own students, so other teachers are pressed into service and have to abandon their classes. Often schools don’t have enough computers to go around and commandeer them from classrooms for testing purposes.

The PARCC tests “caused significant and severe disruption to all teaching and learning at Wilson,” Herbert says. And David Tansey, a math teacher at Dunbar High School, says that each PARCC session “took at least a week to administer and in essence shut the school down for each of those weeks.”

Tansey also says that disruption can continue after testing ends, because it can take a while to reestablish classroom routines. When testing occurs near the end of the school year, it may be too late for things to return to normal.

DCPS and OSSE say all this testing is worthwhile because it provides valuable information. And it’s true that standardized tests have played an important role in pointing out the gap in test scores between socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Without standardized tests, families at high-poverty schools would have no way of knowing how far behind their children are, even if they’re getting high grades.

But it’s less clear these tests provide the kind of information that helps teachers teach and students learn. I’ll take that subject up in another post, along with the effect that testing has had on the school curriculum.

Update: In response to a question about the status of DCPS’s testing task force, a DCPS spokesperson said, “The Chancellor’s Assessment Task Force has helped DCPS to more deeply evaluate the assessments we offer. This work has led us to ensure our assessments are high quality and aligned to our curriculum.”

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.