As overtesting outcry grows, education leaders pull back on standardized tests

A new study finds that US students are tested on average once a month, with some students tested as often as twice a month. The White House announced it will support a movement by education officials to dial back the amount of testing.

Richard Drew/AP
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, (l.), talks about standardized test scores during a news conference, in New York, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. Less than a third of New York students in grades three through eight scored well enough on statewide tests to be considered proficient in math and English last spring. New York is only the second state, after Kentucky, to test students based on the more rigorous Common Core learning standards adopted by most states as a way to improve student readiness for college and careers. He is joined by New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, New York City Schools Chief Accountability Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, and state Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, background left to right.

As the outcry against the overtesting of American children has grown, state and local education leaders – in a move endorsed by President Barack Obama – have announced a new focus on dialing back the volume of standardized testing and dialing up the quality. 

“I have directed [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools,” Mr. Obama said in a statement Wednesday night.  

Obama was responding to a move by the Council of Chief State School Officers – which has promoted the Common Core State Standards and assessments – and the Council of the Great City Schools, made up of large urban districts. They released a set of principles Wednesday to reduce redundant testing and promote a coherent use of high-quality tests that are valuable for students, parents, and teachers.

Whether a student faces a large number of tests is not solely determined by federal or state testing mandates, but is largely the product of local district decisions, concludes a report released Thursday by the Center for American Progress.

Based on a close look at 14 urban and suburban districts in seven states, the CAP report found that: 

  • Students are tested an average of once a month, but some are tested as frequently as twice a month.
  • Students take more district tests than state tests. For grades K-2, the ratio is 3 to 1; for high school students the ratio is 2 to 1.
  • Some states and districts have a culture that emphasizes testing over learning, with a lot of time devoted to test prep, practice tests, and pep rallies.

Despite that, the center found that the time students spent actually taking the tests amounted to less than 1.6 percent of instructional time, on average. The study noted that the time devoted to testing can vary significantly across districts.

An “opt-out” movement has grown in a number of districts, with parents – backed by advocates for less testing – keeping their children out of school on standardized testing days.

For such activists, the statement by state and local leaders doesn’t go far enough to address testing overkill.

“Hollow pledges to ‘review the entire array of assessments’ are insufficient. In the short run, we need … an elimination of test-based consequences for students, teachers and schools,” said a statement from FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, applauded the state and local leaders’ effort to reduce testing and ensure high quality, but said in a statement that it “addresses the symptoms, not the root cause, of test fixation…. It's unconscionable that everything about our schools, our kids and our teachers is reduced to one math and one English high-stakes standardized test per year” under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

But supporters of the new generation of assessments being developed alongside the Common Core standards hope the “baby” of higher-quality testing won’t be thrown out with the bathwater.

“As states and districts work to clear out unhelpful, unnecessary tests, it would be a grave mistake to stop annual statewide standardized assessments,” noted the Education Trust, a nonprofit working to close achievement gaps for disadvantaged students. “Parents deserve to know how their students are performing … when compared to their peers.”

More than 30 state and urban school leaders endorsed the new statement of principles, which supports Common Core aligned state testing. Among them was John King Jr., the education commissioner in New York. The state recently received a federal waiver to avoid double-testing 8th grade math students, and has offered grants to districts to help reduce nonessential testing.

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