Student testing does have its merit

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The debate on the merits of testing children, utilizing formative (how are they doing) and summative (how they did) assessments, is ongoing in both Los Alamos and in the U.S. at large. Readers are aware that Los Alamos Public Schools is federally mandated to test students annually from grades 3 to 8 in reading and math, tested twice in the elementary grades in science, and then in reading, math and science at least once in grades 10-12.  Similarly, New Mexico requires standards based assessment for grade 3- 8 but adds 9th and 11th as well.  A new 11th grade New Mexico graduation competency exam in mathematics, reading, language arts, science, writing, social studies will be issued to 11th grade students in the spring of 2011.
New Mexico does not require that students in grades K-2 be tested. Nevertheless, there are appropriate times when testing primary grade students help educators determine students’ growth in basic reading and math skills. In general most educators see the value in these assessments as an opportunity to catch academic of learning problems early and, thereby, more readily “nipping them in the bud.” Testing early also helps educators identify students who may benefit from enrichment opportunities or identify students who are ready to learn academic skills beyond their age group.
As Mr. Johnson asserted in his Letter to the Editor, in LAPS we do use MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) tests several times per year as a tool to direct our instruction for students at the primary level. MAP testing allows educators to assess students’ levels of skill in reading and math and to make appropriate adjustments for each of them. Kindergarteners throughout the district will take a primary version of the test in winter and again in spring.  
Los Alamos is not unique in the decision to use MAP testing. MAP serves millions of students in the U.S. as a frequent measure of student progress. In many hundreds of districts throughout the nation, students of all ages take this test. To validate the test, NWEA partnered with Kingsbury Center to produce research studies which have shown positive effects of MAP. In other studies districts such as Poway Unified School District, San Diego, Berea City Schools in Berea, Ohio and Chilton, Wisconsin Public Schools reported academic gains. Similarly, No Excuses University and Turn Around Schools verified the benefit of this adaptive test, meaning that the test adapts the difficulty of questions based on the achievement level of the students.  
The Kingsbury Center studies found that this type of test has been much more reliable than fixed-form assessments, particularly for high and low performing students. Low performing students were overwhelmed and discouraged by fixed formed tests, because they could answer few questions, while high performers sometimes became bored and lost focus.
In addition to its adaptive properties, Primary MAP has audio support so that teachers can learn how well students are mastering even pre-reading skills. There is a warm up and practice for kinder students to familiarize them with the test format.  With the use of this unique tool, even in kindergarten, teachers can spend more time teaching to the specific need of each child. Using these tests, teachers can provide rich information to begin guiding a student’s academic career thereby increasing the chances for early academic success; identifying the needs of all primary students and informing individualized instruction; and encouraging student participation with engaging test items.
In his letter, Mr. Johnson also expressed concern about student access to the computer lab during the MAP testing period. While the lab is booked for testing during this time, most schools have other computers both in the classrooms and in mobile labs. Our students are a product of the 21st century technology movement, and as such, are very fluent in the use of computers for this test.
Our commitment to the use of this test is based in part on the requirement from New Mexico to administer short cycle assessments three times a year. MAP is one of the few recognized short cycle assessments by the New Mexico Public Education Department. While that requirement for now relates to older students we have seen the benefit for our primary students as well. Indeed, last spring kinder teachers chose to use MAP as a short cycle assessment by an overwhelming margin because of the math component not provided in DIBELS and the comprehensive results provided in reading.
For more information, visit NWEA and the parent handbook included therein at www.nwea.org.

        Superintendent Gene Schmidt
Assistant Superintendent Paula Dean
            Los Alamos Public Schools