What If Tests Were Only Used for Guidance, Not Consequences?

By Catherine Gewertz — January 12, 2015 2 min read
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We’ve been writing a lot in the past year about the rising opposition to standardized testing. Much of the pushback is about the stakes that are riding on these assessments, such as teachers’ evaluations, students’ promotion from grade to grade, and decisions about high school graduation. Another strain of opposition comes from heavy burden of testing—think about classroom tests, district-imposed tests, year-end state tests, and how many hours those consume.

To all of that unhappiness, it’s interesting to offer a contrast: NAEP.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress has long been viewed as the gold standard of testing. Its questions are demanding, and its achievement standards high. But there’s hardly a peep of public opposition to this test. And it’s not hard to see why. It offers insight into how well K-12 schools are doing without imposing consequences on anyone.

As Exhibit A today, we’re offering you a Jan. 5 letter sent by the principal of a Virginia high school to parents, announcing that it had been chosen as a site for NAEP’s test of 17-year-olds. (It’s based on the template that NCES, which oversees NAEP, offers to schools.) Take a look and see what jumps out for you.

When I look at it, I see the absence of nearly every single trigger point in today’s testing debates. Every kid required to sit for hours and hours of tests? Nope. Here we have only two hours of testing, given to a sample of the school’s students. Weeks of test prep? Nope. Students tied in knots over potentially bad test scores? Nope. NAEP has no effect on student grades. Students aren’t even required take—let alone complete—the test, because NAEP results are drawn from a matrix sample nationally.

Of course there is a crucial difference between NAEP and states’ summative assessments: while they offer a picture of national, and to a more limited extent, state and district performance, they can’t measure how well individual students are doing. That kind of information has to come from other forms of assessment.

Nonetheless, as debate rages about tests (note our current coverage of opposition to annual tests in Congress, and support for them in the U.S. Department of Education), NAEP offers us an informative and sharp contrast. And it reiterates the question: what if all tests were used to offer insight into the teaching and learning process, without imposing consequences on anyone?

Good morning. I am pleased to announce that our school has been selected to participate in the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as the Nation's Report Card. NAEP is a program of the United States Department of Education and is an ongoing assessment of what our elementary, middle, and high school students know and can do in various academic subjects. The NAEP assessment will take place on January 27, 2015. A random sample of our grade 12 students will be selected to take a technology-based pilot assessment in mathematics, reading, or science. You will be notified in mid-January if your child has been selected to participate. The assessment will take 120 minutes. Students do not need to study in preparation for NAEP; however, we do ask you to encourage your child/children to do their best on this important assessment. All the information your child provides may only be used for statistical purposes and may not be disclosed, or used, in identifiable form for any other purpose except as required by law [Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002, 20 U.S.C §9573]. Your child's grades will not be affected. Your child may be excused from participation for any reason, is not required to finish the assessment, and may skip any question. We depend on student participation to provide an accurate measure of student achievement to help inform improvements in education. Your child will represent many other students, so participation is very important. Results for individual students, schools, school divisions, or states will not be reported. By taking part in NAEP, students contribute to improving American education and ensuring that all of our children receive the education they deserve. NAEP appreciates the participation of each child selected. If you have questions or concerns, please contact me [principal's email address] or [instructional coordinator's name and email address]. If you would like additional information about NAEP or to view sample subject area and student questions, please visit Thank you for you support of [school's name] and the NAEP assessment.

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