The state Regents have new testing rules for third through...

The state Regents have new testing rules for third through eighth grades. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

So how long does it take to test the English and math competencies of a third-grader? How about an eighth-grader? Does it take as long in English as in math? Is it better to test students for long periods over few days, or short periods over more days?

No one on New York’s Board of Regents has any answers, but luckily they don’t need them. Data would help if this were an educational problem. Instead it’s purely a political matter, so what works hardly matters.

The Regents on Monday reduced the days students in grades three through eight will test by one-third, down to two days each for English and math.

“This decision not only reduces the amount of time children will spend taking tests, but also returns valuable instruction time to our teachers,” Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said in a statement.

OK. But how long does it take to properly test students? If two days is better than three, would one be better than two? The state Education Department argued that the shorter tests would be significantly less effective. And last year’s New York testing fix went in the opposite direction of this year’s, removing all time limits to reduce pressure. Educators say that students who found the tests the most challenging worked all day to try to complete them.

Worse than the data-free nature of the discussion is the fact that the board is making the adjustments to what are clearly the wrong tests: old-fashioned, in the wrong format, too generalized, sadly imprecise.

Experts are practically unanimous in saying the right tests are adaptive. They are given on computers and get harder every time a student gets a question right, or easier when he or she gets one wrong. The most widely used, called Measures of Academic Progress takes about an hour per subject. Results are available quickly. The test can pinpoint practically any level of achievement in students in kindergarten through 10th grade. And each student is judged on one continuous scale, showing progress over the years.

Such MAP tests are the reason Rockville Centre School District Superintendent Bill Johnson doesn’t mind that 60 percent of his third- through eighth-graders opt out of the required state tests. His district also offers MAP testing in kindergarten through eighth grade.

“It’s an incredibly valuable tool and the teachers and parents love it,” Johnson said. “It provides a real comfort level.”

And how many take it?

“Oh, no one opts out of the MAP,” Johnson said.

The state keeps changing how it administers its required tests. It’s doing so to mollify teachers who don’t want to be evaluated on the results and parents who have revolted against the whole system. Meanwhile, only about 60 districts out of almost 700 in New York use adaptive tests, given in addition to the older, less-effective exams.

The kids shouldn’t opt out of state tests, which have some value. But the kids also deserve better. Activists would be wise to fight for adoption of effective, adaptive testing.

Eventually the policies in the schools have to be focused on what works educationally. Is that year-round school? Longer school days? Single-gender classes? Schools with more arts focus, math focus, recess, or more specialization in areas of talent that allow every kid to fall in love with education?

When it comes to how to improve schools, there are answers. But to find them, we’d have to ask the right questions. And we’d have to want to act on the answers. And that would be a lot harder than deciding to spend slightly less time administering the wrong test in the hope that it looks like we’re doing the right thing.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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