A better approach to tests

A new federal proposal would reduce the burden of testing on K-12 students.
A new federal proposal would reduce the burden of testing on K-12 students. AP

Thanks to the nationwide revolt against the testing mania that now grips so many of our nation’s schools, a proposal currently before the U.S. Senate Education Committee would reduce federal testing requirements by two-thirds.

The proposal would end the federal mandate for annual statewide testing in grades 3-8, and instead require grade-span testing – statewide testing of one grade in elementary school, one in middle school and one in high school.

The proposed change acknowledges the role played by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation in fueling more than a decade of out-of-control high-stakes testing. It also reflects a more realistic understanding of what standardized tests can and cannot accomplish.

The current obsession with end-of-grade testing began when NCLB required states to move from grade-span testing to annual testing. The problem was compounded by requirements that test results be widely publicized, and that the future of teachers, administrators and schools be determined by student scores.

Those two mandates transformed standardized testing from a periodic examination of school performance into the central driver of federal education policy – a move that recklessly ignored the real limits of standardized tests.

Even the best standardized tests cover only a fraction of what students need to learn at school. Well-constructed end-of-grade tests can be fairly good at evaluating content knowledge and some abilities. They can indicate whether a state’s students are mastering the specific set of skills that such tests are able to measure – especially when results are broken down by racial, ethnic, economic and disability groupings. But they provide only a snapshot, taken on a single day.

More important, they cannot effectively assess key skills such as creativity, teamwork or – despite some test-makers’ claims – high-quality critical thinking. A test score cannot tell parents whether children are “college or career ready” – one reason many colleges have dropped test scores from their admissions requirements. No state or district has ever found a reliable way to use student test scores to rate individual teachers’ skills.

Testing experts have regularly pointed out these limitations, and called on public officials to use testing and test scores with caution. Unfortunately, these warnings have gone unheeded.

The resulting pressure to maximize performance on a limited range of measures has narrowed the curriculum at many schools, driven talented teachers out of the profession, dampened many students’ interest in learning, and helped fuel the school-to-prison pipeline.

Reducing federal testing requirements from annual to grade-span testing would help dispel the misplaced idea that end-of-grade test scores are the single best indicator of schools’ or students’ accomplishments. It would clear space for states, districts and schools to work on more meaningful ways to assess the skills their students will need to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Reducing – not eliminating – test requirements would also preserve the value of standardized tests as one piece of information to use in comprehensive assessments of academic health. Grade-span testing would still allow for school-to-school comparisons. It would still provide data for the important civil rights work of determining whether schools or districts are educating some groups of students more effectively than others.

Frequently, parents who challenge high-stakes testing are accused of being opposed to all standardized testing, or of wanting to end testing and accountability altogether. We pay close attention to report cards, projects and teacher-written tests, all of which provide real-time information that can help our children become better writers, thinkers and creators. Most of us are fine with the occasional standardized assessment, if it does not take too much time and the results are not misused.

But we are sick and tired of seeing the learning process regularly grind to a halt so that students can prepare for and take tests that are simply not worth the time, money and effort they currently absorb. We want to end a system run amok, one that juggles numbers, formulas and labels to produce not accountability, but rather a harmful illusion of accountability.

Supporters of more sensible testing policies face a long campaign. Efforts to reduce federal testing requirements have powerful opponents. Even if grade-span testing becomes federal law, states can still choose to continue annual testing, as well as impose high-stakes consequences. But the problem started with federal legislation, and the solution can begin there as well. Reducing federal requirements would be an important step on a path to restoring standardized testing to a role that can strengthen, rather than undermine, our children’s education.

Grundy is a CMS parent.