Districts Beginning to Scale Back On Tests to Lighten School Burden

By Michelle Galley — September 19, 2001 6 min read
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To scale back on the number of tests its students must take, yet continue to meet state requirements, the Montgomery County, Md., school board has decided to do away with the district’s tests tied to its own curriculum. That recent move by the 136,000-student district appears to be in the forefront of a growing trend as states require more standardized tests.

Fewer testing signs are expected in Montgomery County, Md., schools now that officials are scrapping several district tests.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

In New York state, for instance, both the Buffalo and Rochester school districts have streamlined their testing to make way for more state-mandated exams.

District leaders worry that the testing burden will increase still more as a result of legislation reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that Congress is considering. Both the House and Senate versions would require that students be tested annually in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8, though the Senate bill could allow states to use a combination of already existing state and local tests.

The testing proposal is a central part of President Bush’s education initiative.

“I expect many cities to curtail testing as new federal requirements come online,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools.

Some states, meanwhile, are rethinking their testing agendas. In the wake of complaints from parents, educators, and legislators, the North Carolina state school board this summer eliminated three state assessments in order to increase the amount of class time spent on instruction. (“Citing Instructional Time, N.C. Scraps 3 Assessments,” June 13, 2001.)

In Montgomery County, the school system had administered so-called criterion-referenced tests, which gauge students’ ability to master the district’s curriculum, in grades 2-8 in reading and math for almost 10 years. Two years ago, the district began an effort to align both the district’s curriculum and its assessments to the Maryland state standards. As a result, district officials said, students were tested twice on the same subjects.

“The CRTs became superfluous,” said Brian J. Porter, a spokesman for the district, “because they were given on top of the state tests that are quite strong.”

District students will now need to take the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills in reading, language, and math in grades 2, 4, and 6. Those standardized tests are norm-referenced, meaning they compare students’ performance with that of other students, rather than determine mastery of a specific curriculum.

Children in Montgomery County are also required to take the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams in reading, writing, language arts, math, science, and social studies in grades 3, 5, and 8. Because the MSPAP is a performance-based, criterion-referenced test that taps students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities, state officials actually want teachers to spend class time preparing their students for the testing. Separate state-required tests in reading, language arts, and math will be administered in 7th grade. High school students will be unaffected by the district’s changes.

Of course, students throughout the school system also take the teacher-designed tests that go into the makeup of their grades and help determine if they will be promoted to the next grade.

As a result of the district’s decision to scrap its criterion-referenced tests, teachers will have to spend less time preparing for and administering standardized tests, Mr. Porter said. “The combined effect is to lighten the assessment load and allow schools to focus on the core learning goals of the state of Maryland,” he said. “Literally, we were overtesting.”

Trimming Costs

Most parents and teachers in the suburban Washington community felt that students were taking too many tests, according to Mark Simon, the president of the Montgomery County Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “Too much time was being taken up with the dipstick,” he said.

Gary Stager, an adjunct professor of education at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and the editor of Curriculum Administrator Magazine, agreed. “Kids already take too many [tests], and the cost of the tests and test preparation should be applied to engaging learning activities,” Mr. Stager argued.

Because of the time and money involved in maintaining a multilayered assessment system, more districts may decide to pare down their testing, according to Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

“It’s going to happen more and more, as people realize that maintaining a dual system takes a lot more proctoring, a lot more time, and a lot more costs,” she said.

But some observers say that districts may be better off keeping their local exams regardless of the number of state tests, especially if those state tests are off-the-shelf and aren’t aligned with state academic standards.

Districts that want more control over the subjects covered in the tests, and how the tests relate to their curricula, are likely to continue giving their own tests, according to Craig D. Jerald, a senior policy analyst for the Education Trust. The Washington-based group advocates high academic standards for poor and minority students.

“Districts may decide that state tests just don’t fill in the whole picture for them,” Mr. Jerald said.

If states and districts improved their communication and coordination about the kinds of tests that districts need for diagnostic purposes and that states need to satisfy accountability concerns, fewer overall tests would result, Mr. Jerald believes. “That would help some of this backlash,” he said.

More Instruction Time

As a parent of children attending public school in Fairfax County, Va., Bruce Hunter said he was alarmed when he looked at the school calendar and saw the number of days his suburban district was spending on testing this year.

“Fairfax has no plans to cut back testing,” said Mr. Hunter, the director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators.

The 161,000-student Fairfax County district will administer some form of standardized test on more than 100 days this school year, according to the school calendar.

In fact, Mr. Hunter said, in meetings over the summer, many district leaders reported they planned to maintain the same level of testing. “Nobody at those meetings was talking about cutting out tests,” he said. Over the past four years, the 37,000-student Rochester, N.Y., district has phased out its local exams to reduce redundancy and increase instruction time.

Those same considerations prompted revisions of the Buffalo, N.Y, school system’s assessment program, said Constance M. Moss, the district’s assistant superintendent for standards, research, and evaluation. “We want to make sure we aren’t overtaxing our students and teachers,” she said. “But we also want to make sure we have enough mechanisms in place to diagnose how well our youngsters are doing.”

For the past three years, New York state has required its districts to administer assessments in English/language arts, mathematics, and science in 4th and 8th grades, a social studies test in 5th and 8th grades, and a technology assessment in 8th grade. Those exams are all tied directly to the state standards. Additionally, the 47,000-student district administers the norm-referenced Terra-Nova achievement test, as well as its own battery of tests that are tied to the district’s curriculum.

‘A Knowledgeable Way’

To reduce redundancy, the district last year cut its mathematics and English tests in grade 4 and its 8th grade social studies test. Earlier this year, nearly 300 teachers in Buffalo signed a petition calling for an end to the district’s 4th grade social studies test and the 4th and 8th grade science test.

At the end of this month, district administrators and teachers plan to discuss further streamlining. Ms. Moss said the district hopes to cut back more, but wants to make sure it still can generate an adequate amount of information from its measures. “We have to do it,” she said, “in a knowledgeable way.”


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