Outlook: Schools push for sensible testing

School districts prioritize formative and performance-based assessments
By: | Issue: January, 2016
December 22, 2015

Resistance and frustration over standardized assessments and learning standards may have reached critical mass.

In October 2015, President Obama and the U.S. Department of Education released a testing action plan, acknowledging that, “In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students.”

The action plan recommends capping the amount of class time devoted to standardized testing at no more than 2 percent and promotes high-quality and innovative assessment practices. So what will assessments and learning standards look like in 2016 and beyond? It’s not so easy to predict.

“If you look at the polls around assessment, it’s not that people object to having some form of assessment, they object to too many and tests that aren’t aligned and don’t give useful feedback,” says Vicki Phillips, director of education, college ready with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “The question now is, how do we get smarter about assessment? How do we make standards and assessments more useful, more meaningful to teachers and kids?”

Decrease in testing time

Students in grades 3 through 11 spend more than 20 hours per school year on testing, according to a study by the Council of Great City Schools. Concerned educators and legislators have been cutting back the time devoted to standardized assessments.

“In the last two years, half a dozen states, including California, Georgia and Arizona, have eliminated a graduation test and many, many states have cut back on testing,” says Robert Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

PARCC will reduce the testing time for students by 90 minutes and decrease the number of test units by two or three in 2016, so students in grades 3 through 11 will take no more than seven units, divided between ELA and math.

Heavy pressure on Common Core will intensify

Political pressure against the Common Core will increase in some states this year, according to DA’s standards and assessments survey.

Sixty-two percent of respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed that political pressure against the Common Core will increase in their state in 2016. Only 18 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with that.

The “opt-out” movement will also grow in some states, according to survey results. About 60 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that more students will skip tests, compared to 23 percent who felt the opposite way.

Slightly more than a third of the respondents said the implementation of the Common Core or other standards had not been successful in their districts. But another third reported successful adoption of a new curriculum.

Some respondents added comments:

The state keeps changing the tests!
Politicians are making decisions about topics they know nothing about. It’s about time we had a Common Core for the nation and higher standards.
The opt-out movement is bizarre. Parents demand accountability from teachers but oppose it for their students.
I hope opposition to Common Core increases. Education should be driven by state and local education agencies.
The knowledge and skills explored in the standards are meaningful, but the political discussion and the dysfunctional assessments have crippled the effort.

The DA survey on assessments was part of a broader set of trend surveys deployed to readers in late 2015. A total of 317 leaders participated in this particular survey. ÑAngela Pascopella

Smarter Balanced has not announced any decreases in testing time or units, but Executive Director Tony Alpert says the consortium is “coming up with efficiencies that will make the system work better for the people who need to use it.” Smarter Balanced is improving its collection of possible test items and communication between schools, states and test coordinators, he adds.

Continue learning standards

The Common Core continues to be politically volatileÑand the results from the first round of assessments were less than impressive. Still, most experts predict educators will spend the next year digging in and working to incorporate the standardsÑperhaps under other, state-specific names, such as Wisconsin’s “Badger State Standards.”

States, districts, schools and teachers now have the first standardized information that explains where gaps may exist in implementing Common Core standards, Alpert says. This will lead teachers to rethink how they are teaching their students, he adds.

Administrators can support teachers’ efforts by setting regular time aside for professional learning, collaboration and development. “Our uphill battle now is, how do we significantly increase the quality of implementation?” says Deborah Delisle, executive director of ASCD.

So far, not enough time has been given to teachers to work collaboratively and to think about what high-quality instruction looks likeÑwhat does it look like on an English paper from a seventh-grader? Delisle asks.

Emphasize formative assessment

Despite the fact that teachers and administrators are hungry for data they can use to improve instruction, assessment data often fails to provide useful information.

In 40 percent of districts surveyed by the Council of Great City Schools, test results weren’t available until the following school year. This renders the data virtually useless to educators who want to work quickly to improve the outcomes for students.

“Teachers want assessments that are far more meaningful and that give them good instructional feedback,” Phillips says. “I think a trend that will continue to grow is formative assessments that teachers can access on an ongoing basis, which tell them where kids are so they can adjust practice in real time.”

Smarter Balanced plans to devote more energy to its interim assessments and to helping educators use its Digital Library, an online trove of instructional materials teachers can use to address identified gaps in student learning.

Move toward performance-based assessments

Some districts will shift test-based accountability to broader forms of assessment, such as portfolio review and performance-based tests, says Schaeffer, the public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

That’s a sentiment echoed by nearly all education thought leaders, and one supported by the Department of Education’s testing action plan. Because federal rules may be blocking innovation, the Obama administration will offer waivers to states and districts that want to work with the Department of Education to “promote high-quality, comparable, statewide measures.” Waivers can provide relief from No Child Left Behind and allow districts to explore alternative assessment systems.

Four districts in New Hampshire have been granted a flexibility waiver and are working to reduce reliance on traditional standardized tests. Under the PACE (Performance Assessment of Competency Education) pilot program, students take the Smarter Balance assessment just once during elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school, rather than annually in every grade through third- and eighth-grade and one time in high school.

During their non-standardized testing years, students tackle locally developed performance assessments in ELA, math and science. These assessments include attention to students’ communication skills, creativity and ability to collaborate and self-direct.

Scott Sargrad, director for standards and accountability at the Center for American Progress, predicts “a much bigger focus on performance-based assessments,” in the coming years. Educators can therefore expect assessments to become much more comprehensive and task-based.

Fewer opt-outs?

While there’s been some debate regarding the number of students who opted out of last spring’s assessments, there’s no doubt the opt-out movement remains a powerful force. The movement is “going to explode in the coming year, unless policy-makers make significant changes in test misuse and overuse,” Schaeffer says.

It’s too soon to predict whether the administration’s testing plan will lead to any substantive changes in 2016, but it’s safe to say that legislators and administrators will continue to refine the assessment process.

Education leaders will stick with the tests but develop improvements based on the first year’s results, says Sargrad. “States, districts and schools need to do a better job of communicating with parents and teachers the purpose of assessments and the value they bring,” he says, “and then work on aligning their assessment systems by getting rid of duplicative assessments and reducing test prep.”

Jennifer Fink is a freelance writer based in Chicago.