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Push to Limit Federal Test Mandates Gains Steam

By Alyson Klein — October 13, 2014 5 min read
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For more than a decade, teachers, administrators, students, and even parents have criticized the No Child Left Behind Act—and, now, the Obama administration’s waivers under that law—for giving too much weight to standardized testing and forcing students to take too many exams.

That critique hasn’t gotten very far in Washington. But there are signs that the movement to limit the number of federally mandated tests students take may be gaining momentum—and it could pick up more steam as the Obama administration draws to a close and the 2016 presidential election begins in earnest.

Proposals to cut down on the number of assessments of students include fairly dramatic departures from the NCLB regime, such as legislation in Congress backed by teachers’ unions that would allow states to give summative tests in math and English/language arts only in certain grade spans. They also include more-limited, deliberately constructed approaches taking shape in individual states.

For instance, New Hampshire is in talks with the U.S. Department of Education about establishing a pilot program that would allow a handful of districts to take the state’s summative assessment only in certain grades, provided that those districts offer local “competency-based” tests, which gauge whether students have mastered a particular skill. The local tests would then be “mapped back” to the state exam.

The Council of Chief State School Officers is interested in working with the department to explore pilot projects along the lines of what the Granite State is considering, said Carissa Miller, the deputy executive director of the CCSSO.

“We support kids and teachers and parents getting information every year,” she said. “We’re open to the idea that there are states who want to pilot something” different as long as they continue to test kids every year.

Rhetorical Shift

Also, in Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, last month wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, saying he would like to “start a dialogue” between the Obama administration and his state on ways to “reduce the testing burden.”

The Nutmeg State is mulling allowing 11th graders to take the SAT college-entrance exam during the school day, in lieu of the high school exam aligned with the Common Core State Standards and developed by the federally funded Smarter Balanced consortium. That would cut down on the number of exams “overtested” high school juniors have to take, he said.

The idea of using a college-entrance exam for accountability purposes isn’t new—some states including Maine and Kentucky use the SAT or ACT in gauging schools’ progress—but Mr. Malloy cites it as a way to cut down on the number of tests.

Mr. Malloy was inspired, he wrote in the letter, by a blog post that Secretary Duncan authored in August, announcing the department’s decision to allow states with NCLB waivers to delay incorporating the results of standardized tests into teacher evaluations for one year.

In that post, Mr. Duncan said he shared teachers’ concerns that “testing—and test preparation—takes up too much time,” a line Gov. Malloy quoted in his letter.

The blog post was something of a departure for Mr. Duncan. During President Barack Obama’s first term, the Education Department showed no signs of letting up on the requirement that states test students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, as required by the NCLB law.

In fact, the administration arguably doubled down on testing, by calling for states to incorporate student outcomes on state tests into teacher evaluations to an NCLB waiver.

The argument for less frequent testing has gotten a sympathetic hearing from some lawmakers in Congress. A bill introduced in March by Reps. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., would let states test students in certain grade spans, instead of in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. That would reduce the number of federally mandated standardized tests from 14 to six.

And a bill by Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., introduced last month, would require students in grades 3 through 8 to take only one test per year, instead of two. Under the legislation, reading tests would be given in grades 3, 5, and 7, and math in grades 4, 6, and 8.

Staggering the Tests

Such so-called “staggered testing,” or “grade span” testing, has strong backing from teachers’ unions.

“It’s about giving teachers more time to teach the kids who are most in need,” said Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the National Education Association, a 3 million-member union.

Education analysts including Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a research organization in Washington, have argued that higher-performing countries, such as Finland, don’t test their students every year, and that tests can be of higher quality if they are given less frequently. (Mr. Tucker also writes an opinion blog for Education Week.)

But there are some big downsides to less-than-annual state summative testing, said Sandy Kress, an education policy adviser to President George W. Bush during the development of the NCLB law, who is now a senior counsel at Akin Gump, a law firm with offices around the globe.

For one thing, locally developed assessments generally don’t have the same objectivity as state tests, making it a lot tougher to measure student growth from year-to-year, he said.

And schools will sometimes use staggered testing to game the system, Mr. Kress said, putting all of their most-effective teachers in the tested grades, for example.

“I think the net effect of [staggered testing] is to make fair and sophisticated accountability impossible,” he said.

So far, the idea has yet to make it into any major piece of legislation aimed at reauthorizing the NCLB law.

The issue could become more prominent as the 2016 presidential campaign draws near.

Recently, former President Bill Clinton said he would be in favor of fewer tests—perhaps once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school. That testing regime is “quite enough if you do it right,” Mr. Clinton said, according to the Huffington Post.

Mr. Clinton’s remarks pack a political punch: His wife, Hillary Clinton, is considered a likely candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Slow-Building Push to Limit Federal Test Mandates Gains Steam

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