Ed. Dept. Charts Course Toward Scaled-Back Testing

By Denisa R. Superville & Alyson Klein — November 03, 2015 5 min read
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With the testing debate showing no signs of abating, the U.S. Department of Education’s newly released set of principles on the topic aims to bolster states and districts in reducing the number of tests students take, while simultaneously calling for higher-quality assessments to be administered in schools.

The principles—which are not mandatory—also contain recommendations that students spend no more than 2 percent of class time taking tests, that no test be used solely for educator evaluations, and that Congress scale back on testing as it reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The rollout also came with the Obama administration’s admission that it gets some of the blame for the wide array of assessments now given in the nation’s schools.

“In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students,” the principles read in part. “The administration bears some of the responsibility for this, and we are committed to being part of the solution.”

The “Testing Action Plan” drew praise from some for what was seen as an overdue response to parents, educators, and others, but skepticism from those fearing it could muddle an already complicated system.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, applauded the effort to curb testing.

“The fixation on high-stakes testing hasn’t moved the needle on student achievement,” she said in a statement. “Testing should help inform instruction, not drive instruction.”

The Boston-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing said the announcement “belatedly admits that high-stakes exams are out of control in U.S. public schools, but does not offer meaningful action to address that very real problem.”

And AASA, The School Superintendents Association, said that while testing is a key part of the educational process, there must be a separation between testing conducted for educational purposes and testing for accountability purposes.

Cutting Back

The U.S. Department of Education’s “Testing Action Plan” aims to chart a path toward fewer, but more high-quality tests that take up less overall class time for students and schools. Among the highlights:

• A request for $403 million in fiscal 2016 federal funding to help states implement assessments that are aligned with college-and-career-ready standards and $25 million to help states develop new, innovative testing approaches.

• Guidance to states and districts by January 2016 on using assessments, along with and federal funds to conduct assessment audits.

• Department “office hours” for states and districts seeking technical expertise on the best ways to reduce assessments and meet legal requirements.

• Planned flexibility for states that want to develop their own assessments that may reduce testing.

• Flexibility from the No Child Left Behind Act requirement that all 8th graders be tested on the same statewide math and English exams if those 8th graders are taking advanced high school level courses.

• Greater flexibility for states on using standardized tests in educator-evaluation systems and measuring teachers’ impact on learning in evaluating teacher-preparation programs.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

“Responsible federal policy in this space will look not only at the number of mandated assessments, but also at the manner in which the related results are available, analyzed and used,” said Daniel Domenech, AASA’s executive director.

Building Backlash

Since the No Child Left Behind Act, which called for annual testing in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, the number of tests in schools has continued to increase.

The Obama administration, meanwhile—which spent much of its first six years in office arguably upping the ante on standardized tests by calling for them to be a part of teacher evaluations—has instead spent the past year urging states and districts to make sure that tests are of high quality, and don’t take up too much instructional time.

The administration’s latest announcement coincided with the release of a report on testing in urban school systems, which found that students in 66 big-city districts surveyed took an average of 112 tests—eight a year—between pre-K and high school graduation. The survey by the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 68 of the nation’s largest school districts, also found that there was no correlation between the time students spent taking tests and better performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation’s report card.

The testing system, according to Michael Casserly, the council’s executive director, was “incoherent,” “redundant,” and “lacking a clear strategy.” (See Education Week, Oct. 28, 2015.)

Last week, President Barack Obama met with teachers, federal, and state education representatives and officials from districts represented by the council at the White House to discuss standardized testing. The president later posted a letter reiterating the administration’s call for tests to be “high quality” and “worth taking,” not take too much time, and be just one tool that educators use to measure how their students and schools are doing.

Quality, Purpose

The president’s comments reflected those made by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr., Duncan’s senior advisor who is acting as deputy secretary, at a panel in Washington of federal, state, and local officials focused on testing.

Duncan said the goal was to create a system of high-quality assessments that would help drive instruction, assist teachers, and provide valuable feedback to students and parents about where their children were and what they needed to do to improve.

In answering a question on the proposed 2 percent cap on testing, Duncan said that quality and purpose were more important.

“If you reduce testing to 1 percent, and it isn’t relevant ... it is not guiding instruction, that is a loss, that’s a failure, not a win,” he said.

While the consensus at the panel appeared to be that there were, in fact, too many tests given in schools, the focus was on designing better and more appropriate assessment systems and helping states and school districts to do so.

Educators should not return to the years when low-performing students were hidden behind the “curtain” of high-performing students, said Miami-Dade County schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Thirty-nine states are working on reducing testing redundancies, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers, the group that represents top education officials in the states. The Miami-Dade district has scrapped 24 district assessments, which led to an additional 260 minutes of classroom time, he said. State efforts in Florida have led to districts cutting hundreds of end-of-course exams, he said.

In North Carolina, the state held focus groups with parents, teachers, and students about the kinds of assessments that would help them most before revamping how it assesses its students, according to June Atkinson, the North Carolina superintendent of public instruction.

At the end of the day, it comes down to passing the “Goldilocks” test, Atkinson said, and designing a system of assessments that were “not too many, not too few—just right, all for the benefit of our students’ growth and achievement in our nation.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as As Pressure Builds to Rein in Testing, Ed. Dept. Sets Path for States, Districts


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