Taking on school testing overload

With a return to state control over assessments, which ones should we keep?

Educators generally agree that we are testing too much.

On the heels of No Child Left Behind, we’ve had 15 years of often misguided national and state accountability policies that have only just been rolled back.

Driven by a robust parental “opt out” movement, Congress’ latest action puts more authority back with the states. But in doing so, we risk swinging the pendulum back too far in the other direction. To get accountability right this time we need to properly decide which tests to keep and which to discard.

In its recent landmark study of testing, the Council of the Great City Schools reported, “Overall, the data suggest that testing time does not correlate with reading and math outcomes. This suggests that increasing the number or frequency of assessments does not improve student achievement.”

So if more testing doesn’t contribute to student learning, why continue doing the same thing year after year?

Keep or trash

If we include all the tests kids take annually, it counts for a significant chunk of the school year. The question is how do we decide which to keep, which to discard and why?

I would suggest a rather straightforward approach. To decide what tests and assessments to keep, we can ask:

What assessments are mandated and what is being done with them?

What other assessments are kids taking at each grade level/subject area?

What are teachers doing with them?

To proceed, schools and districts should first conduct a thorough assessment audit. Next, grade-level data teams should review each of these assessments, applying a schema such as the one described here. Is each test/assessment:

Properly aligned with the curriculum and/or unit of instruction? If not, just discard.

Used formatively for instructional improvement and is the effort of the student justified in terms of guidance to their learning? If not, discard.

Used for summative grading? If so, is it absolutely necessary or are there other ways of garnering the same information on what students know? If not, just discard.

Further questions for consideration:

What is the consequence of dropping the assessment? What would be lost in terms of information gathered on what students know or need to learn? If the information lost is not absolutely critical and useful, why not discard?

How much time does the assessment take to grade and is the information garnered worth the effort? If too much time is required, why not discard?

Do teachers actually use the assessment results as intended? Do they understand its purpose and its reporting scale? If they do not use it now and if they don’t really need it, why not discard?

To maximize instruction time, keep assessments that:

Are required by law.

Are absolutely required by other constituent groups.

Teachers can clearly demonstrate they use to formatively assess instruction.

Are formative in nature but can be transformed into summative assessments by also using them for grading, promotion and retention decisions.

Teachers absolutely need for summative assessment of student progress.

Since the enactment of NCLB, we’ve seen two trends emerge.

First, assessments are increasingly meant for audiences well beyond the teachers who can benefit most from them. We assess students for a multitude of audiences, such as the federal government, state government, city/council/board of finance, board of education, parents, real estate agents, teacher evaluation at the state and federal levels, and for improving instruction.

Second, we have not succeeded in empowering teachers and principals with the ability to determine what is or is not a good assessment.

Now that we are seeing a pullback of federal and state requirements, we risk returning to a time when assessment was even more poorly understood and used. But if we focus on what teachers and principals know, build their confidence and empower their decision-making, we can eliminate a lot of unnecessary assessment and recapture important instructional time.

Then we can build on their assessment knowledge, resulting in a more effective accountability and assessment program.

Philip A. Streifer has served as superintendent of three Connecticut school districts.

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