Fewer Tests: Momentum Building, But for Different Solutions

By Catherine Gewertz — October 14, 2014 3 min read
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There is a swirl of new activity on the anti-testing front, and it’s yet another sign that the fervor to cut back on testing is moving from the grassroots into the policy world of Washington.

This week alone, there are two events being staged here in Washington that focus on rethinking testing.

The Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 67 big-city school districts, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state education commissioners, are hosting a conference call with reporters on Wednesday to showcase four education leaders’ commitment to reevaluate how—and how much—they test their students.

It’s not just the amount of testing that’s at issue here; it’s also the quality of testing. Remember that the CCSSO has been using its “criteria of high-quality assessment” to quietly work the policy halls to build support for tests that are better gauges of student learning.

Leading the way for the CCSSO and the Council of the Great City Schools on this will be New York state schools Chancellor John B. King, Jr., Louisiana Superintendent John White, District of Columbia schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and Jumoke Hinton Hodge, a member of the school board in Oakland, Calif.

On Thursday, the Center for American Progress is hosting a discussion titled, “The Need for Better, Fairer, Fewer Tests.” Announcing the event, the Center bemoaned the over-testing and hours of test prep that have crept into schools. “But there’s hope,” the CAP said in its announcement. PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments “provide a promising alternative to the ill-aligned and poorly designed tests from the past 20 years. By making tests more effective and focused on problem-solving skills, the amount of standardized assessments can be reduced and the test-prep culture that has overtaken schools across the country will become a thing of the past.”

That’s one of the clearest examples of a certain angle on the evolving conversation about rethinking testing. Its bottom-line message seems to be that if we can only clear all the underbrush and make way for PARCC and Smarter Balanced, our testing problem would be solved.

Now it’s true that educators and policymakers are paying increasing attention to the role that districts’ and schools’ own tests play in the burden of assessment on students and teachers. While much of what we know about teaching to the test, and “overtesting,” is anecdotal, the American Federation of Teachers and TeachPlus have tried to quantify the contribution that interim, benchmark, and other kinds of locally chosen assessments play in the problem.

But the argument that Smarter Balanced and PARCC will collectively address the nation’s testing problems is unlikely to win universal acclaim. For one thing, even in their revised, shortened forms, they’re still longer than many states’ current year-end tests. Will states and districts net shorter testing times by throwing overboard the assortment of other local tests they’ve been using? To make that work, everyone would have to feel pretty optimistic that the PARCC and Smarter Balanced suite of interim and formative tools are sufficient replacements for what they’re using now. But many teachers don’t even know that the consortia work includes instructional resources and interim tests.

For another thing, there is a growing chorus of folks out there who don’t see testing as a solution to testing. To put it a different way, they want less testing, or no testing, not different tests. The agitation of those parents, teachers and activists is helping light a fire under the discussions that are creeping increasingly into the salons of Washington’s alphabet-soup groups.

Top levels of government are rethinking testing, too. We’ve reported on a speech by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which was officially about giving states more time before they have to use student test scores in teacher evaluations, but was shot through with references to wanting to be “part of the solution” to the problem of too much testing.

And as my colleague Alyson Klein points out, members of Congress are starting to take action to rethink mandated testing. States are taking up the cause, too. Alyson tells us that New Hampshire is trying to convince the U.S. Department of Education to allow a pilot that would fly in the face of No Child Left Behind’s testing requirements by letting a few districts test only in some years.

How the varying “solutions” to the national “testing problem” will converge remains to be seen. But for now, it’s clear that while there is more talk about reassessing assessment, those doing the talking are imagining very different things when they talk about solutions.

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