This month Mesa Public School students are sitting down to computers to take state assessments.

It won’t be the first time that students have taken a standardized test this year.

In January and early February, MPS students took a pre-assessment to check in on how well they were learning the skills needed for this month’s state tests. 

This was on top of an assessment in the fall.

Next school year, MPS plans to administer three of these benchmark assessments throughout the year before the state assessments in April.

With all the assessments, placement tests and screeners offered – some mandatory, some optional – a seventh grader could theoretically take a dozen or so assessments in a year beyond their classroom work, based on MPS’ testing calendar.

Some are state-mandated to see what percentage of Arizona students are meeting state learning standards in language, math and science.

But some testing in Mesa comes from the district level. It’s additional testing to check where students are knowledge-wise before they take the state tests in April.

For some teachers still trying to get classroom instruction back to normal, all this testing is a big ask.

Before a March 29 presentation on the results of this year’s mid-year assessment testing, Superintendent Andi Fourlis touted the tests as a tool to help assess where students fell behind during the pandemic, which could help teachers close learning gaps.

In his presentation, Mesa’s Director of Assessment Josh Henderson told the board that school principals and teachers are using the district test data to refine lesson plans and identify students who need extra help.

While board members at the meeting expressed support for the mid-year testing, they also took the opportunity to ask critical questions about standardized testing. 

They wondered how much testing was too much, and whether the tests were actually measuring skills.

“We’re giving an awful lot of tests and screeners,” board member Joe O’Reilly said. “I’ve heard a lot from people about maybe we’re doing too much of that. What are you hearing from teachers and principals?”

“A lot of the teachers I talk to definitely feel like we’re doing a lot of testing,” Henderson said. “Part of the conversation that we had … if we look at the number of instructional minutes that we’re using on a daily basis, how many of them are allotted to teaching and how many of them are we using assessing? Those are conversations that we need to start having as a district and with our leaders.”

But Henderson argued that the cost in class time was worth it, and he said he’s had conversations with teachers and principals who find the test data useful.

“For every two principals that tell me we’re doing too much testing, I have another two that tell me they’d like more,” he said. 

Assistant Superintendent Monica Mesa also defended mid-year assessments. She told board members that the district’s assessments are useful because they give teachers more specific information about student knowledge than the state tests.

“We get summative data from the state,” Mesa said. “Oftentimes it doesn’t drill as deep as what we’re actually going to have (in mid-year assessments), that are skill-based, tangible. These kids need these skills in order to truly access the standard that we’re going to be teaching throughout 7th grade, 8th grade and moving on.” 

Mesa said she knows of teachers who are planning next year’s lessons differently based on the data they got from the mid-year benchmark testing.

“I love hearing this,” board member Lara Ellingson said, “because (testing) is a lot of work on our classroom teachers, and I wanted to be assured that we are using the data to drive the instruction and it’s not just wasted time for our teachers that are working so hard.”

The results of state standardized testing can be consequential for schools. They figure into the letter grades schools are assigned, which can impact a school’s reputation and funding, since Arizona passed limited “results-based funding” in 2017, awarding extra money to high performing schools.

While assessments are high-stakes for districts, they aren’t necessarily high-stakes for individual students, whom the district depends on to put in the effort.

Board member Marcie Hutchinson raised the issue of student motivation to perform on assessments and whether the district is testing the “will or the skill” of students, as Henderson put it.

“Having been a teacher who proctored a number of PSAT, SAT, ACT exams, I was the AP teacher, how the heck are we motivating kids to do well on these tests? What’s in it for them?” Hutchinson said. “I know that just proctoring 30 kids in my class, just encouraging them to take the test seriously was a major objective.”

School officials did not have a definitive solution to getting students put effort into tests that are so important to the educators around them, but don’t have an immediate impact on the student’s lives.

Assistant Superintendent Randy Mahlerwein suggested that the district needed to create a culture of pride at schools.

“I think it’s about establishing a sense of community in the classroom, a sense of pride in what you do.” Mahlerwein said.”It’s not about the test, it’s about the mentality of representing yourself at a high level when you take the test, and that is a mindset that we gotta work on together to instill in our students.”

District administrators also noted that conditions for administering tests are still very challenging for schools this year, with students getting used to being in school again and spikes in COVID infections earlier in the year leading to numerous absences among staff and students.

For Henderson, this year’s assessment testing shows that teachers are succeeding in closing COVID learning gaps.

Between the fall test and the January test, Henderson said, “there’re many grade levels that show tremendous growth from the first benchmark.”

He showed the board a graph displaying the percentage of students demonstrating “mastery” over the subject matter assessed in the fall and spring semesters. The percentages had grown for every grade level except grade 4.

“I think that’s showing our teachers are having a good and important impact on our students,” he said.

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