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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

State Testing: Where’s the Dialogue Around Learning?

By Peter DeWitt — February 26, 2015 5 min read
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Over the last few days there have been two commentaries on annual statewide testing that have been published. I’m sure there are more than that but two stick out among the others in cyberspace. Why Annual State Testing Matters was written by Karen Hawley Miles and appeared as a commentary in Education Week. The other is Don’t Give Up the Gains in Education, which was written by the N.Y. Times Editorial Board.

State testing is a hot button issue, especially now that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is underway. However, it would be so much better for all of us if we spent less time talking about testing and more time having dialogue around learning...especially at this crucial time during the reauthorization when learning should be at the center of our discussions.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening...

Clearly, with the growing Opt Out Movement in the United States there is an increase in the level of awareness by parents who believe that state assessments give schools very little information about their child’s ability to learn, so they would prefer that their children are not subjected to 80 to 90 minutes of testing for about 6 days over a two to three week period.

This does not mean there couldn’t be value in some sort of yearly assessment. It just seems that in many cases, they do not provide effective feedback in a timely manner that can help guide learning. They do seem to create, however, a new label for students who do not reach proficiency. Labels are not something we need more of, but dialogue around learning is something we do need.

There are other ways to assess learning, but in an Education Week Commentary, Karen Hawley Miles seems to dispute that. In Why Annual State Testing Matters, Hawley Miles wrote,

The proposal before the U.S. Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee would revise the current authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act--the 1965 law known in its latest version, passed by Congress in 2001, as the No Child Left Behind Act--to no longer require states to give annual statewide assessments in reading and math to all students in grades 3-8 (and once in high school). Instead, the proposed legislation would offer states the option of testing each student only once every few years, for example, or allow districts to choose their own assessments."

She goes on to write,

This kind of local control may sound appealing. But getting rid of annual statewide testing would in fact undermine the ability of educators, parents, and policymakers to identify who's excelling and who's struggling; which strategies work, and which don't; and where we should direct our limited resources to prepare all students for college and careers that require strong writing, critical-thinking, and quantitative skills."

My issue with state testing is the fact that it has become the solitary measure of how schools are doing, and it’s tied to teacher and administrator evaluation. Do you ever see formative assessments printed in the newspaper or on the news? Clearly there are numerous reasons why having testing tied to evaluation is wrong, but Carol Burris has documented it much better than I could, so you can click here to read her thoughts.

What puzzled me about Hawley Miles’ commentary is that she wrote, “But getting rid of annual statewide testing would in fact undermine the ability of educators, parents, and policymakers to identify who’s excelling and who’s struggling.” I’m perplexed by that statement. Without state testing educators won’t be able to identify who’s excelling and who’s struggling?

That is simply not true.

Schools have formative assessment for that, and if they waited for the results from state testing, which sometimes come 4 or 5 months after the test has been taken, that certainly isn’t timely feedback to help them in the identification process anyway. Her next two bullets go on to give a very naïve view of how state testing helps schools.

In states like NY, funding has been cut by the governor, so testing isn’t going to help make that better. And as for the case being brought up in the comments that some of us want to go back to the time before standards and state testing, that is not true either. Many of us can’t unlearn what we have learned about inequalities happening in schools around the country, but we don’t need state testing for that. Jonathan Kozol wrote about that in the 90’s.

Testing, Testing This OpEd

The NY Times article starts out with a bang. The Editorial Board mentions the increasing graduation rate, but then wrote,

Even so, the achievement gaps remain distressingly wide, and American children are still losing ground to competitors abroad who are much better prepared for college and the new economy. It would be a grave mistake for Congress to back away from important reforms in its reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was named the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002."

If NCLB was so great, as is annual testing, why do the achievement gaps remain so distressingly wide? It’s been 13 years and the Editorial Board is suggesting that Congress shouldn’t back away from reform. 13 years to still be considered “distressingly wide” is a positive reform?

The OpEd goes on to provide reasons why the law was flawed, and then went on to explain why the law continued to be flawed when,

Congress missed a chance to fix this problem when it failed to reauthorize the law as scheduled in 2007. Had lawmakers taken up the matter, they could easily have reduced the overemphasis on test scores by giving some weight to other indexes, like advanced courses, the strength of the curriculum and college admission rates."

They explained that some schools continued to over test students. Of course...schools are at fault for this. Those schools pummeled children with test prep, pre-tests, post tests, weekly tests, death-by-ditto tests, and then moved on to quizzes.

As long as schools and the teachers within those schools have their evaluations tied to the results, we will see an overabundance of testing. As long as weak school leaders only look at testing because of the outside pressures that may force them to do so, there will be too much testing.

Sadly, no one talks about too much learning.

Where the Talk of Learning?

When we can provide schools with assessments that give timely and effective feedback centered around student learning and not focused on teacher accountability, then we will get people on board to support state testing. The problem with all of these arguments is that it is all about holding schools accountable and not about student learning at all.

Regardless of how you feel about testing, whether you are for it or against it, there is something missing from both commentaries...and that is the talk of learning. If the NY Times Editorial Board really cares about what is happening in schools they should put all of that collective knowledge on commentaries that focus on learning, and not spend so much time talking about testing and accountability.

I’m sure that Karen Hawley-Miles cares deeply about how schools are meeting the needs of students, but she should understand that state testing isn’t going to provide schools, policymakers and parents with the knowledge they need. Formative assessment, feedback to parents and students, locally developed measures that are standardized, and real authentic parent-teacher conferences, as well as communication, will tell parents how well their children are learning.

If parents have to wait for the results once a year from a test that is abusively long in many states, than we have a much bigger problem than just testing.

John Hattie, someone I work with and admire, talks a great deal about the Politics of Distraction. Adults get caught up talking about a lot of issues that really focus more on the adult. Testing can be abusive to students, but all of these articles really go back to focus on accountability, which is an adult issue.

It would be nice if we could all come together and talk about learning, which is what thousands of educators do every day on social media formats like Twitter and Facebook. We need to have more of an emphasis on school climates...inclusive school climates that meet the needs of all populations...including marginalized ones, and focus faculty and stakeholder meetings around the topic of learning.

Where are the OpEd and commentaries that focus on learning? Let’s help Congress see what that looks like.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.