Just a few short years ago, there were real questions about whether Congress would ditch annual, standardized assessments as part of a makeover of the nation’s main K-12 education law. At the same time, parents were increasingly choosing to opt their children out of standardized tests.
But the Every Student Succeeds Act ultimately kept the tests in place. And since then, at least some of the steam has gone out of the opt-out movement in states such as New Jersey and New York, considered hotbeds of anti-testing fervor.
Some of the biggest skeptics of annual, standardized testing have taken a break from what was a big push to reduce the number of federally required tests. And they don’t expect there will be another opportunity to roll back federal testing mandates for quite awhile.
“Nobody is fighting on it now,” said Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, who has spent decades engaged in the national fight to pare back assessments and has recently announced his retirement. “It’s too early for the next round. On the consequences of the tests, the lengths of the tests, the nature of the tests, [the debate’s] continuing. It’s not on any state table now because there’s nothing they can do about it.”
Neill is grateful that some states took opportunities in ESSA to broaden accountability beyond test scores and shift teacher evaluation away from test results, although most state ESSA plans don’t go as far as he’d like.
On the other side of the coin, organizations that see annual standardized testing as a key equity principle are also taking note of a break in the anti-test action.
“I think it is much quieter, whether that’s because ESSA plans [are mostly approved] and [the] federal law is not going to be opened up for awhile,” said Patricia Levesque, the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a think tank started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But, she said, she doesn’t expect that the debate is dead forever. “A lot of things are cyclical. That’s just the way that policy is.”
ESSA, like its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, requires states to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But the new law says states must use other factors—such as chronic absenteeism—in identifying schools for extra support. And it gives states wide latitude to figure out how to intervene in struggling schools and evaluate teachers.
NCLB required states to test all their students. Schools that assessed fewer than 95 percent of their students were considered automatic failures.
Under ESSA, states must somehow account for low test participation, but just how to do that is up to them. And states can continue to have laws affirming parents’ right to opt their students out of tests, as Oregon does. ESSA also requires states to mark non-test-takers as not proficient.
Lack of Flexibility
But some district leaders say they are still chafing under the annual testing regime, despite all the new flexibilities in ESSA.
“I would love to get away from this obsession with standardized testing,” said Chip McGee, the superintendent in Bedford, N.H., a 4,500-student school district south of Manchester. It’s harder to try out new forms of instruction when districts have to prepare students for statewide tests. “It keeps everything so locked in.”
And other local leaders don’t think their states did enough to capitalize on the testing leeway the law offers, including the chance to use a series of interim assessments in place of one, big summative test. So far, no state has decided to go that route.
“I think Ohio is missing the mark on ESSA,” said Kelly Spivey, the superintendent of the 3,100-student Tallawanda school district in Oxford, Ohio. End-of-year tests “don’t give us much meaningful information” to adjust student learning, compared to formative assessments, which offer a real-time picture of student progress, she said. “If the state assessments were timely in the return of that information, that might be a whole different conversation, but they are not.”
Levesque is sympathetic to those concerns.
“If you listen to the teachers, [they’ll say,] ‘I give up a day of teaching for these tests, and I don’t even get the info back in time to help my students,’” she said. “Most teachers said, ‘If I don’t have it within a week that doesn’t help me.’”
Teachers have to cram too much into the early part of the school year in time for a testing window in early spring, making the remainder of the school year “movie time” in some classrooms. Levesque’s organization is urging states to push back the tests until later in the year, even if it means the results come out a bit later. So far, only a couple of states, such as Florida and Indiana, could go in that direction, but Levesque is hoping momentum will build.
What’s more, a few states considered hotbeds of the opt-out movement have seen test participation rates tick up in recent years, if only slightly. In New York State, for example, opt-out rates dipped from 21 percent in the 2015-16 school year, to 19 percent in the 2016-17 school year.
New Jersey’s participation rate in the mathematics assessment increased from 86 percent in 2014-15, to 93 percent in 2015-16, and 95 percent last year. The state education agency has made the move to choose a new statewide assessment, and has done extensive listening sessions with parents.
“I thought ESSA was an improvement. The punitive nature was not there” to the same extent as under NCLB, said Julia Sass Rubin, a parent in central New Jersey who has been active in the opt-out movement. She’s not happy schools could still get penalized for having a high opt-out rate, but “at least you’re leaving it up to the state to decide what to do about it.”
That’s not to say that test participation is no longer an issue across the country. In Utah, for example, in 2017, 5.9 percent of students opted-out of tests, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. And 1 in 5 students in the Park City school district chose not to participate in tests, the paper reported. Under ESSA, the state will ultimately have to count nonparticipating students as failing.
The state is mulling having two accountability systems—one for state accountability and one for federal accountability. That’s an option Colorado has taken.
States are all over the map in how they plan to deal with opt-outs.
For instance, in Mississippi, New Mexico, and Ohio, schools that don’t reach the 95 percent participation target will see their school grades lowered by one level, going from an A to a B, for example. But at least six states do the bare minimum that ESSA requires, which is marking students who don’t take the test as not proficient. Some, including Maryland, also note test participation rates on school report cards. Maryland, though, will also calculate school grades that only take into account those who took the test.
Colorado affirms that schools cannot “coerce” parents into having their children take the tests. But the state will provide information for parents explaining the reasons for administering tests and how results are used.
One looming question: Will test participation—and test frequency—surface as an issue again anytime soon inside the Beltway?
Technically, ESSA is up for reauthorization next year. But it took Congress more than a half-dozen years to tackle the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, the law ESSA replaced. And few advocates think it’s likely that lawmakers will want to revisit K-12 policy in a big way anytime soon.
Still, the idea of less frequent testing hasn’t died completely on Capitol Hill, even though there’s no obvious legislative vehicle to attach it to. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Krysten Sinema, D-Ariz., introduced legislation last year to replace annual assessments with grade-span tests.
The 2020 presidential race could provide the next forum for a testing debate. But Neill, of FairTest, isn’t so sure that Democratic candidates running for president in 2020 will make backing off standardized testing a part of their platforms.
“Many of the key civil rights groups still support testing every year,” he said. Candidates will ask themselves, “Is this a fight you want to wade into?”
What’s more, groups that have traditionally advocated for scaling back standardized testing—including educators and their unions—have been focused on other areas lately, such as opposition to the Trump administration’s proposals to slash the budget of the U.S. Department of Education, and teacher pay.
“The folks who were unhappy and leading the opt-out movement have other things on their plate,” said Jeff Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. When it comes to testing, “maybe everyone is just taking a breath.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2018 edition of Education Week as Pushback on Standardized Testing Loses Momentum