Preparing Kids for State Tests: Less Time Than We Think!


All fifty states in the country are required to administer state assessments at the end of the school year to comply with the accountability measures laid out by the federal government. For example, all states MUST test students in English Language Arts (ELA) and math every year in grades 3-8 and also in social studies and science two times within that grade band. In addition, all states must require state tests in math and English at least one time in high school. Logically, schools want as many instructional days as possible to prepare their students for these high stakes tests that have serious implications for students, parents, buildings and districts across the United States. Given the traditional school calendar, school should be able to count on 180 days of instruction to prepare kids, right? Well, for numerous reasons, schools rarely, if ever, have even one student in attendance ready for instruction for 180 school days. In fact, when we look at all of the factors involved, the typical student is likely in their seat and available for instruction anywhere from 140 to 150 days every school year. Let's take a look at why.

Really 180 Days?
 

When most people are asked how many days  kids spend in school the likely response is 180 days. The legal requirement of a 180 day school year changed in 2103 when the Ohio General Assembly changed the minimum school year requirement from days to hours. Now, high schools must be open a minimum of 1,001 hours per year and elementary schools must be open a minimum of 910 hours. Importantly, each school week must consists of five days under Ohio law unless the partial week butts up against a holiday or approved non-student day. Schools in Ohio are required to be open for instruction not less than 182 days. However, the required number of days may be reduced by two for professional meetings of teachers and up to two more days for the participation of teachers in parent teacher conferences. That's right, when teachers are holding parent teacher conferences, that time counts toward the 182. Now we are down to 178 days without considering calamity days. In Ohio, I would imagine it is safe to say that just about every district can count on using least 3 calamity days each year with no requirement for making up those days. Consequently, the 182 required days are now down to 175 due to professional development, parent teacher conferences and calamity days. Now ket;s look at factors that reduce that number even further.

 

State Requirements

Compounding this problem is that states impose strict "Testing Windows" in which a specific test must be administered by the school district. In other words, a state may mandate that all ELA exams are taken in a 2-3 week timeframe and districts are given a starting date for this "Window" and an ending date. Click here for Ohio's state testing windows for the 2016-17 school year. If the window lines up perfectly, with the district's school calendar and falls on or near the last day of school, instructional time will be maximized. However, this is far from the case. In Ohio for example, the 2016-17 testing "Window" for ELA is March 13-April 14. Remember, for every day the "Window" is closed prior to the last day of school is a day of instruction lost in preparation for that exam. Most schools in Ohio have started their school year as early as possible to leverage instructional days the best that they can. This has resulted in a mid-August first day of classes and the last day of school falling the Friday before Memorial Day. It hasn't helped much. In a district with this ending date, teachers lose approximately 28 days of instruction to prepare kids for success on ELA assessments. Don't forget the 7 lost instructional days noted above that simply adds to the lost time. So you thought we had 180 days? For ELA preparation it's more like 147 days for the average kid when one subtracts the 7 days illustrated above and the 28 days left in the school year after the close of the ELA "Testing Window". For the other state assessments the window ends later. In fact, for math, social studies and science the "Testing Window" in Ohio ends May 12 for the 2016-17 school year. So kids only lose about 14 instructional days for exams in those disciplines. As a result kids have about 161 school days of actual instruction to prepare for those tests.But wait, there is more....actually less! These numbers only count for kids with perfect attendance!

 Attendance and Other Pulls Out of the Classroom
 

According to the nonprofit organization Attendance Works an analysis of student self reporting as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (N.A.E.P), approximately 20% of Ohio 4th and 8th graders indicated they missed at least 3 school days the prior month. If that held true, those kids would miss 27 days in a school year! Click here for the entire report. For the purposes of this blog we are assuming a "typical" student. So, let's play it somewhat conservative and say the typical student misses 5 days every year due to excused absences approved by their parents. This number includes illness, religious observations and family vacations. Now let's contemplate other reasons kids miss classes,even when they are in school. All schools have assemblies, visits from the guidance staff, guest speakers, fire drills, tornado drills, and safety drills. Elementary schools conduct health screenings. Individual students are called to the office, visit the school nurse and stop in guidance to see their counselor. I will estimate that the typical student misses another three days of instruction due to these other "pull outs" from classroom instruction. So, the absences and "pull outs" tally 8 missed days. We determined previously that kids miss another 7 from parent teacher conferences, professional development and calamity days. They miss 28 potential days for the ELA tests, 14 for math, social studies and science. As a result, the "typical" student has approximately 153 days of instruction to prepare for the state math, social studies and science examinations. For ELA, that number becomes 139!
 
It's Worse for Some Students

 

Attendance at the nation's schools is an extensive problem. The simple act of being in school is a major hurdle for some students that further complicates the number of days students are available for instruction. Ohio passed a new truancy law HB 410, that went into effect January 1, 2017 which attempts to address this issue with school based intervention programs that provide "habitually truant" students interventions reminiscent of an individual education plan only this approach addresses absenteeism. Students are "habitually truant" if they miss 5 consecutive school days, 7 days in a single month or 12 days in a school year. If they meet or exceed any of these thresholds, the intervention team is activated and the process begins to try to solve the problem. Have you added these numbers to our running total? Granted, these are not "typical" students but their absence from school is a reality. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires state' accountability systems to include three new subgroups under the umbrella of "transient students" which are kids from groups that historically miss school days due to their transitory existence. These groups include children in the foster care system, homeless students and children of military personnel. Ohio has taken this notion a step further and will also concentrate on children of migrant workers and students who are involved with the juvenile court system. These groups of students serve to heighten the dilemma that schools face regarding the ongoing battle to maximize the number of instructional days that students are available.
 
What's the Answer?

 

The best answer to maximize the instructional days that students are actually available to learn in a given year requires placing the needs of the students above the needs of the adults. Currently, we have this backward. First, we need to schedule state tests so they are taken at or very near the end of the school year so that every single day possible that school is scheduled can be utilized to its fullest potential. Closing a testing window in mid-April when there are five weeks of school left makes no sense whatsoever. If the rationale is getting everything graded so we can get the Local Report Card (LRC) released in mid-August, then make the release of the LRC in mid-October. If the U.S Department of Education is driving the timeline, they need to move the timeframe back to make this simple and sensible adjustment. Secondly, we need to not "give away" instructional days every year to teacher meetings and parent teacher conferences. School administrators and unions need to get together to figure this one out within their own collective bargaining agreements. But lets be serious, there is no student instruction happening at teacher meetings or parent teacher conferences. So, let's not say that there is and give these days back to the kids. Third, individual schools must enact building procedures that make "instructional time sacred time". By this I mean that the "administrivia" of the school like assemblies, field trips, guidance visits and the list goes on, must be re-thought so that instructional time is maximized. After all, once it is lost it cannot be made-up. Finally, Ohio has taken a great step forward to address chronic absenteeism with the passage of HB  410 AND including this as a non-academic measure on the LRC which will help bring this issue to the fore.
 
 

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