U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently showed he is listening to concerns from parents, teachers and school leaders about over-testing and the detrimental impact it can have in the classroom. I applaud the Secretary’s call for a more thoughtful and responsible approach to testing and his appeal to focus the discussion on what’s right for students, parents and educators.
Secretary Duncan’s shift was noteworthy… and refreshing. Too often, education and political leaders are veering to extreme stances, failing to reach across the aisle, and reducing these vital conversations to sound bites instead of solutions.
While I agree with the Secretary’s cautions about over-testing, we can’t lose sight of his other key message: assessments are needed to help our schools improve and ensure that we — parents, educators, policy makers and taxpayers — know how well our students are learning. Testing should not be done for testing sake, nor should partisan politics dictate what tests should or shouldn’t be used. Smart testing empowers us to know if we are closing achievement gaps, making progress, and providing all students with the world-class education they deserve.
As a former Chief State School Officer, I know there is no magic “right” number of tests for districts or schools — this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Cutting tests without understanding their purpose is not smart policy and is not good for kids. Some tests that seem useless to politicians provide vital information to parents and teachers; other tests seem useful on the surface but provide limited or redundant data to educators. We should constantly ask ourselves: is this test needed to ensure success for our students?
One major problem I have seen is principals or teachers arranging the whole school year around the test, as if practicing for the test will result in student success. This misses the point. If educators spend most of the school year teaching high quality curriculum, students will be ready. A reasonable amount of time preparing for the test and test environment is appropriate, but we have to rein in overstressing test prep. I think this is in part what the Secretary was trying to say.
A few states and districts have clearly heard the concerns about over-testing, and are actively reviewing which assessments make sense, and what can be cut.
- In July, New York state sent each of its almost 700 school districts a list of tests that could be eliminated or changed and still meet the requirements of New York’s evaluation regulations. Then in August, New York announced the winners of its “Teaching is the Core” grants. Over 250 districts received funds to create committees of local teachers and stakeholders to review locally adopted tests and identify ones that do not contribute to teaching and learning. These funds also will help districts improve existing assessments.
- Last spring, eight school districts across Connecticut piloted Achieve’s Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts, a free tool which enables local educators to take stock of how many assessments are administered throughout the school year and why they are given.
- This year, Colorado launched a new Standards and Assessment Task Force to study the implications of assessments for school districts, public schools, educators, and students. The task force will examine how tests are given, how test data is used, the impact of state tests on local ones, assessment costs and the amount of classroom and administrative time consumed by testing. The task force also will study implications for teacher and principal evaluations, school and district accountability ratings, and the rollout of new assessments tied to Common Core. The final report will be released this winter and used to inform district and state level practices.
These are just three examples of many local, state and national leaders taking a smart, common-sense approach to testing.
Too much test prep and over-testing is not so much a federal problem — the number of federally required tests has not changed in over a decade. I encourage the state and local educators and decision-makers to review their practices and ensure that all testing has a purpose that ties back to student learning.
Smarter testing is everyone’s responsibility.