Opinion
Federal Commentary

Why Annual State Testing Matters

By Karen Hawley Miles — February 17, 2015 4 min read

Do we know how well school districts are using money? Do we know how well they are educating our children?

We can research a district’s budget in the public record, but we won’t know whether that money is actually being spent wisely unless there is a consistent measure of student progress. Yet one proposal to revise a landmark federal education law might dismantle the system we have used for 14 years to track and compare how much students are learning.

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.

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. Consider the following:

States need annual assessments to compare districts and support them effectively. For example, Massachusetts, in 2011, identified the Lawrence public schools as deeply struggling, the district having ranked at the bottom for four years in a row on the statewide MCAS exam. Accordingly, Massachusetts put the school system into state receivership and provided extra resources, talented leaders, and more flexibility.

Getting rid of useful yardsticks for measuring student learning should concern everyone who cares about making good use of taxpayer money."

Today, Lawrence is an emerging success story, with math scores that have climbed from 28 percent to 41 percent proficiency. That kind of intervention couldn’t have happened without a statewide benchmark that revealed the degree to which Lawrence was lagging and needed help.

Districts need annual statewide assessments to compare their own schools and support them effectively. The fast-improving Denver school system uses annual state test scores, along with other data, to determine which schools to expand, which need extra support, and which should be rewarded for performance or progress.

Annual test data also helped Denver determine that its math-tutoring program had a high return on investment, compared with other improvement strategies, giving school officials the evidence needed to persuade the community to fund it. Without annual tests, a district cannot precisely track student growth, identify its causes, and make the case for why some strategies work better than others.

Schools need annual statewide assessment data to support students effectively. In Charlotte, N.C., principals and their supervisors have worked to review student-achievement data and other metrics, such as teacher effectiveness and time in core subjects, to reveal how well a school’s resources are meeting children’s needs.

Such a review might highlight that the 3rd grade teaching team needs extra support, for example, or that 8th grade African-American boys are closing the achievement gap in math. In Lawrence, Mass., such information often hangs on the walls of schools as a point of pride.

Valid concerns about current testing systems do exist, of course. In many districts, too many tests are given, those tests may not be aligned or of high enough quality, and test preparation has the potential to crowd out other important subjects and approaches. We must continue to revise our tests, remove redundant ones, and refine instruction to focus on deeper learning and critical thinking. We must also modify the federal law to focus on assessments as a tool for improvement and support—not as a punitive cudgel.

But reducing the frequency and consitency of tests will not improve their quality or allow us to learn from assessment best practices within states. It will only make it harder to hear the signal in the noise.

It is sobering to study the nation’s mediocre scores on international and national tests. And as more states move to the more-rigorous common-core-aligned assessments, we will see that we still have a long way to go to educate students of all backgrounds to a high level.

Getting rid of useful yardsticks for measuring student learning should concern everyone who cares about making good use of taxpayer dollars, closing the nation’s glaring achievement gaps, and competing economically with other nations. We can’t be afraid to know how our students are doing. We should be afraid not to.

A version of this article appeared in the February 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Why Annual State Testing Makes Cents

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