School & District Management

School Leaders to Trim Testing, But Keep Yearly Assessments

By Liana Loewus — October 21, 2014 6 min read
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State schools chiefs and a national group representing 67 big-city districts are throwing their collective weight behind an effort to reduce test-taking in public schools, while also holding fast to key annual standardized assessments.

Concerns about the quality and frequency of testing have reached somewhat of a fever pitch over the last several months, in part due to the impending debut of new summative tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Washington policymakers have likewise begun to respond to critiques about “overtesting"—members of Congress have introduced bills to reduce the amount of federally mandated testing, and, after years of staying the course on the issue, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said that testing “takes up too much time.”

In last week’s announcement, the two Washington-based school leader groups—the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools—announced they would review the array of state and district tests being administered in public schools, report their findings, and work to eliminate redundant assessments. They also reaffirmed their commitment to annual testing.

Both President Barack Obama and Mr. Duncan praised the organizations’ new public commitment to fewer and higher-quality tests.

The effort to reduce testing is, by some accounts, a way of clearing the path for the common-core tests being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. If those tests are aligned to the standards and accurately gauge student learning, some experts say, that will negate the need for supplementary tests.

John B. King Jr.New York State education commissioner

However, testing critics have blasted the CCSSO and the council for continuing to support the yearly standardized testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act, which they say is the root of the overtesting problem.

‘Next Generation’ Leaders

The two organizations made their announcement during a conference call last week with reporters. Featured on the call were New York State Commissioner John B. King Jr., Louisiana State Superintendent John C. White, and District of Columbia schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson—all young, energetic school leaders who have been strong supporters of the common core and teacher-accountability efforts.

John C. WhiteLouisiana superintendent of education

“These are leaders of the next generation stepping up to say testing is still important, we hear your concerns, but we’re not going to back down,” Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington-based consulting group, said, commenting later on the news.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, noted that preliminary data his group gathered on the national, state, and local tests being administered in schools show that students in urban districts take “an average of 113 standardized tests between prekindergarten and 12th grade.” Eleventh graders spend the most time taking tests—up to 27 days per year—and 5th graders sit for an average of five days of testing per year.

Kaya HendersonDistrict of Columbia public schools chancellor

“Testing is administered for 23 distinct purposes,” Mr. Casserly said, including federal and state accountability, English-language proficiency, diagnostics, and evaluations of programs. The organization is expected to release the complete results of its investigation later this month.

In a document put out with the announcement, the CCSSO and the council pledged to work together to ensure “assessments are used in responsible ways.” The state schools chiefs vowed to publish a list of all state assessments, shed duplicative assessments, and “partner with school districts to review their benchmark and formative assessments.”

The urban district leaders said they would review the assessments administered in their districts for alignment and quality, eliminate inappropriate assessments, “curtail counterproductive ‘test prep’ practices,” and make the results of their reviews public.

During the conference call, Mr. White, the Louisiana schools chief, said: “We’ve seen that most of the testing taking place on a daily basis is not on the state level but in the everyday work in schools. We need to take a hard look at the industry that sells these products.”

While the shift to the common standards has caused more scrutiny of curricular materials, he said, periodic and formative assessments have been “less examined.”

District vs. State Tests

Local testing, much of which is “nonessential,” has increased in recent years, according to Mr. King, the New York state superintendent. “We believe we can work together with our districts to make sure the testing we have in our states at the state and local level is the minimum necessary to inform our decision making,” he said.

A report by the Washington-based Center for American Progress, also released last week, corroborated the claim that students take more district-level than state-level assessments. In fact, that study, which looked at 14 urban and suburban districts, found that high school students took twice as many district exams as state ones.

The report suggests that the new common-core-aligned assessments could ultimately be the key to less testing. Those tests “offer the promise of reducing the need for districts to layer on additional tests to compensate for low-quality state tests,” it said.

According to Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development for the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, the announcement by the CCSSO and the council is also “definitely clearing the way for a streamlined, meaningful assessment system.”

“I don’t want to say PARCC and Smarter Balanced and other college- and career-readiness tests are going to be the only thing states should do—it may be that there are other benchmark or interim assessments teachers find meaningful, and we shouldn’t rob them of that—but we do need to go through and make sure there’s a clear purpose for every assessment that is being administered,” she said.

Causes and Symptoms

In a statement about the CCSSO and the council’s commitments, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, “It’s great that they see the need to limit test redundancies, improve test quality, curtail test preparation, and focus assessments on informing instruction. ... But this effort addresses the symptoms, not the root cause, of test fixation. Unless I’m missing something, it doesn’t touch No Child Left Behind’s highly consequential testing for every child, every year.”

The unions have pushed back on teacher-evaluation systems linked to student test scores, which many states have put in place with incentives from the federal government. Those systems hinge on being able to measure student growth year over year.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an advocacy group based in Jamaica Plain, Mass., went further in its criticism of the school leaders’ announcement, saying it was made up of “homilies” and “hollow pledges.”

“They provide no evidence for the same old claims used to justify the failed mandates of the No Child Left Behind era, such as the need to test every student every year,” said the statement from the group known as FairTest. “Score gaps between racial groups have not closed.”

Yearly testing is essential for helping students, argued Julia Krahe, a spokesperson for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the House education committee. “When you’re really trying to figure out whether a given child is learning, you can’t afford to wait years to determine whether they can read or do math.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as State and District Groups Pledge to Drop Redundant Tests

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