Pretty much everyone in America agrees that our students spend too much time taking tests. The kids, the parents, the teachers, now even the President.
On October 24th, the U.S. Department of Education issued a statement that America’s school children are spending too much classroom time on assessments. Both the outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his successor, John B. King, Jr., support the new guidelines, which recommend that no more than 2% of instructional time be spent taking tests.
The proliferation of high-stakes standardized tests began under the Bush administration with No Child Left Behind, continuing and morphing into Race to the Top under the Obama administration. The tests reflected the bipartisan belief that high expectations and accountability would result in better student performance on international achievement tests, as well as closing the gap between white and minority students.
What the tests actually did was create a culture of testing in our schools, raising stress levels for both teachers and students and reducing or eliminating opportunities for participation in the arts, physical education, recess, and class discussions and “teachable moments.” Because federal funding and teacher evaluations were tied to the outcome of the tests, many teachers felt pressure to teach to the tests.
A report from the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), also released October 24th, found that students take an average of 112.3 tests between pre-kindergarten and twelfth grade. That’s about eight tests each year, almost one test each month of school. And if you think that’s already a lot, that number does not include optional tests, diagnostic tests for students with disabilities or English language learners, school-developed or required tests, or teacher designed or developed tests!
During the 2014-2015 school year, eighth graders, who spent the most time being tested, spent approximately 4.22 days (2.34% of the year) taking mandated tests. Again, this figure does not include any of the assessments outlined above or any time spent preparing for the tests or taking sample tests. Not surprisingly, the study found no correlation between time spent taking mandated tests and reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
The Department of Education is proposing that students spend no more than 2% of their class time taking mandated tests. In other words, they are suggesting a test reduction of three-tenths of a percent for eighth graders, and probably less than that for students in other grades. And are these tests at least worthwhile?
The CGCS study states that “some tests are not well aligned to each other, are not specifically aligned with college- or career-ready standards, and often do not assess student mastery of any specific content.” We know that performance on SAT and ACT tests does not predict student success in college; perhaps it’s time for us to admit that performance on standardized tests in PK-12 does not necessarily reflect student learning.
So what does the U.S. Department of Education suggest? They released a set of guiding principles, but there are no steps yet: “By January 2016, the Department will provide clear guidance to all states and districts regarding what existing federal funds may be used for assessment audits and to support high-quality teaching and learning, and best practices for using testing as a learning tool.”
One thing we do know is that President Obama’s proposed FY 2016 budget includes $403 million “for state assessments to provide additional resources to states to support the effective implementation of assessments that are aligned to college- and career-ready standards that will help ensure that all students graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in college and the workplace.”
There is also a set-aside of $25 million to “support competitive projects to help states develop innovative, new assessment models and address pressing needs they have identified for developing and implementing their assessments.” RI is cited as an example of a state whose leaders are working to reduce over-testing.
Instead of continuing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on developing and administering testing programs, perhaps we should try putting that money into early childhood care and education. The first three years of a child’s life have a lasting impact on their development and success. Let’s try to eliminate the achievement gap before it even begins, and maybe we’ll also eliminate the need for high-stakes testing.
This post also appeared at GoLocalProv.