State and District Leaders Vow to Reduce Testing, Stick With Yearly Assessments

By Liana Loewus — October 15, 2014 5 min read
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State school chiefs and leaders from big-city districts committed to reviewing the array of assessments students take in schools and eliminating redundant tests, but they also made clear that they will not back away from annual standardized testing.

At a conference call this afternoon, representatives from the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools acknowledged widespread concerns about the frequency and quality of tests being administered in public schools, and said they will take steps to ensure the tests used are in students’ best interests.

[UPDATE (3:00 p.m.): During that call, Michael Casserly, the executive director of the council, noted that his group has been collecting data about national, state, and local tests being administered in schools. A preliminary analysis has shown that students in urban districts take “an average of 113 standardized tests between prekindergarten and 12th grade,” he said. Eleventh graders spend the most time taking tests—up to as many as 27 days of testing per year—and 5th graders sit for an average of five days of testing per year. “Testing is administered for 23 distinct purposes,” Casserly said, including federal and state accountability, English-language proficiency, diagnostics, and evaluations of programs.]

While the push for less testing is not new, it does appear to be gaining momentum—and not just among parents and educators, but also in Washington. As my colleague Alyson Klein wrote earlier this week, members of Congress have introduced bills to reduce the amount of federally mandated testing, and the U.S. Department of Education is hearing out a proposal from New Hampshire to pilot a modified testing schedule. After years of staying the course, the U.S. Secretary of Education himself recently said that “testing—and test preparation—takes up too much time.”

Featured on the phone call were New York State Commissioner John King, Louisiana State Superintendent John White, and District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson—all young, energetic school leaders who have been strong supporters of the common core and teacher-accountability efforts.

“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,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington-based consulting group.

‘Responsible’ Assessments

In a document put out with the announcement, the CCSSO and the council wrote that they would work together to ensure “assessments are used in responsible ways.” They also affirmed their commitment to yearly testing, writing that “without assessments given at least once a year, educational leaders would not have the information they need to know about who is learning and who is not.”

The state schools chiefs vowed in that document to publish a list of all state assessments, help get rid of 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.

[UPDATE: White, the Louisiana schools chief, said on the call, “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.”

Local testing, much of which is “nonessential,” has increased in recent years, according to 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 decisionmaking,” he said.]

The organizations’ joint effort is “definitely clearing the way for a streamlined, meaningful assessment system,” said Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development for the Washington-based Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group. “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.”

Last year, the American Federation of Teachers released a report looking at two districts’ testing programs, which found that tests and test-preparation are a financial burden and take up weeks of instructional time. Teach Plus, a nonprofit that trains teachers to be policy advocates, released a report earlier this year finding wide variations in the amount of time districts spend on testing. (The authors eventually conceded major errors in the data.)

In a statement about today’s announcement by the CCSSO and the council, AFT 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. Even the Gates Foundation went further by calling for a two-year moratorium on high-stakes consequences for tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards.” The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wrote in a June 10 letter that districts should hold off on tying teacher evaluations to common-core-aligned assessments for two years, but did not recommend delaying administration of the tests.

The announcement by the CCSSO and the council also preceded a discussion at the Center for American Progress titled, “The Need for Better, Fairer, Fewer Tests,” scheduled for tomorrow in Washington..

The Council of the Great City Schools will also be discussing its full study on assessment practices in big-city districts at its annual conference next week.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.