States Eye Assessment Throughout the Year as Frustration With Standardized Testing Mounts

By Libby Stanford — September 07, 2023 6 min read
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Frustrated with an accountability system that revolves around once-a-year standardized exams, more states are looking to redesign the tests, hoping they provide teachers and districts with more timely and useful feedback on their students’ progress.

Last month, the Montana education department secured a rare waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, allowing the state to forgo its usual standardized tests used for federal accountability purposes and instead field test a new system of exams given at various points throughout the 2023-24 school year. In Missouri, the state education department has awarded “innovation waivers” to a group of 20 school districts so they can pilot through-year programs in addition to the state standardized tests, and the state is hoping to secure a federal waiver like the one Montana received to start offering the through-year tests in lieu of the current system. And in Florida, schools have switched from an end-of-year test to a “progress monitoring” model that involves testing three times a year.

The U.S. Education Department’s decision to approve Montana’s request for the Field Test Flexibility waiver on Aug. 10 is an extremely rare instance of the department allowing a state to forego federal testing requirements without a natural or public health disaster, like COVID-19, driving that decision.

“The Department is committed to partnering with States to develop more innovative approaches to assessments and supporting States in their provision of timely academic achievement and student progress data to educators, parents, and families,” a department spokesperson said in an email to Education Week.

At least 13 states have started exploring through-year test models, according to Education First, an education policy organization. The slow movement reflects educators’ opinions that state-mandated tests aren’t useful for teaching. But a wholesale transition away from the testing regime would require a federal law change dispensing with the two-decade-old accountability system introduced under the No Child Left Behind Act. No such change, however, appears to be in the offing.

The old accountability model was built on outdated assumptions that the primary audience for test scores should be policymakers, not teachers, students, or parents, said Mike Fulton, lead facilitator of the Success-Ready Student Network, the group in Missouri leading the work to change testing.

“That is a model centered on the notion if we just weigh the schools and report out on how they’re doing, improvement will occur,” Fulton said. “But the assessment actually has nothing to do with informing continuous improvement in real time, making adjustments in real time, informing instruction, informing school design on how time and structures … are used to support learning.”

In a recent EdWeek Research Center survey, nearly 80 percent of educators said they feel moderate or large amounts of pressure to have students perform well on state exams, with 49 percent of educators saying they feel more pressure now than they did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But most educators don’t find end-of-year assessments useful.

An outdated system

Tony Lake, superintendent of the Lindbergh school district in St. Louis, compares the current end-of-year state testing model to being a quarterback playing in the Super Bowl in the 1970s.

“If you watched the Super Bowl last year, you saw [Kansas City Chiefs quarterback] Patrick Mahomes sitting on the sidelines with his tablet getting real-time information to help him win that Super Bowl or win that game, and they won that Super Bowl,” Lake said. “Kansas City won Super Bowl IV [in 1970] when Len Dawson was the quarterback. Len Dawson got his information from the game about four days later.

“When you think of the current assessment, Len Dawson is our current state assessment system.”

District leaders like Lake would prefer to live in a world where testing gives educators real-time feedback on student progress so they can ensure they’re meeting student needs throughout the school year. Lindbergh is one of the 20 districts in Missouri piloting new testing models.

The district is using NWEA tests administered multiple times throughout the year for students in 3rd through 9th grade in addition to Missouri’s year-end standardized tests. (NWEA creates the series of MAP tests designed to be given throughout the year to measure student progress.) The idea is to give students, teachers, and families the full information on how the student is progressing throughout the year.

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A small group of diverse middle school students sit at their desks with personal laptops in front of each one as they work during a computer lab.

In the Show Me State, it’s individual school districts driving the change. But it’s the same thought process as in Montana, where State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen and her team developed the Montana Alternative Student Testing Pilot Program, which the state has used in a small set of schools since September 2022. It is a through-year test administered five times a year to all students in grades 3-8.

Before becoming superintendent, Arntzen spent some of her career as an elementary school teacher and became aware of the current testing model’s pitfalls.

“That test score just didn’t recognize my work as a teacher or the work that [my students] did,” Arntzen said.

The federal education department’s Field Test Flexibility waiver, issued Aug. 10, allows Montana to expand the pilot, and removes the usual year-end testing so teachers don’t have to double-up exams for their students.

The new testing model is “going to bring parents and students and teachers all together on the same page,” Arntzen said. “It’s going to recognize that the accountability of the classroom is spread between family, the student, and the teacher.”

The issue of accountability

One of the major criticisms of state-mandated standardized tests is that they aren’t an accurate measurement of school performance. Standardized tests can favor districts with more resources and leave districts with high rates of poverty struggling to catch up.

Many educators would like to see states and the federal government put more emphasis on other measures to assess school performance, like teacher turnover and attrition rates and school climate surveys. As for the tests educators find useful, a majority of respondents to the recent EdWeek Research Center survey listed teacher-created formative assessments and teacher-created end-of-unit exams.

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Image is teenagers taking a test

But for accountability purposes, through-year testing may give policymakers a more accurate view of how students are doing and provide more transparency to families, Fulton said.

Fulton, Arntzen, and Lake would all like to see state and federal policymakers provide more opportunities for flexibility from current accountability requirements, like the waiver from the U.S. Education Department.

There are options built into federal law to allow states and individual districts the flexibility to overhaul their testing systems or opt for different tests. But there haven’t been many takers. Only a handful of states ever showed an interest in an Innovative Assessment pilot, for example, that federal lawmakers hoped might pave the way for a new generation of tests.

In an email, an Education Department spokesperson said the agency is working to strengthen the Innovative Assessment pilot, while also providing states with grant funding for more assessment innovation.

Teachers, meanwhile, have often argued they’re overburdened with testing, and that test prep takes away from time that could be spent on student learning: Thirty-six percent of educators in a recent EdWeek Research Center survey said they or teachers in their district spend pretty much the entire school year on test prep. Some teachers’ unions have argued that through-year testing can add to that burden, especially as schools are still required to do year-end testing.

Those pushing a real-time testing model argue that it’s one ingredient in a system that better promotes learning.

“Replace heavy-handed accountability with an absolute laser-like focus on learning,” Fulton said. “Then support student learning with good instructional practices and policy that encourages people to take risks based on research.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2023 edition of Education Week as States Eye Assessment Throughout the Year As Frustration With Standardized Testing Mounts


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