What should districts keep in mind when weighing new federal testing guidelines?

The Ed Department has issued new assessment guidance under Obama's Testing Action Plan

In a video released last week by the U.S. Department of Education, acting Secretary of Education Dr. John B. King Jr. discussed ways states can get rid of poor quality, redundant, and “unhelpful” testing. The YouTube clip, announced via press release, came alongside a written letter setting guidelines for states to implement President Barack Obama’s Testing Action Plan.

The department also opened "office hours" for states and districts that felt the need for additional feedback or consultation on scaling back testing.

“High-quality assessments give parents, educators, and students useful information about whether students are developing the critical thinking and problem solving skills they need to succeed in life,” Dr. King noted. “But there has to be a balance, and despite good intentions, there are too many places around the country where the balance still isn’t quite right. We hope this guidance will help restore that balance and give back some of the critical learning time that students need to be successful.”

In the video, Dr. King stressed the importance of balance. Testing can’t be scrapped all together, but it also can’t overpower classrooms. Student progress and performance has to be tracked, but not to the point where it becomes a sole focus.

The letter showcased a list of bulleted points for districts to weigh while assessing whether or not their current testing regimen is helpful.

U.S. students spend between 20 and 25 hours annually on standardized tests, according to a 2015 study of learners in 66 large districts by the Council of the Great City Schools. To JoLisa Hoover, a Teaching Ambassador Fellow and fourth grade teacher at River Ridge Elementary in Texas' Leander School District, the federal guidance was welcome.

“Students have had reactions to testing that ranged from mild jitters that are easily calmed, to students who throw up during testing, or students with depression or thoughts of suicide,” Hoover told Education Dive.

In a blog post, she wrote that one 10-year-old was so afraid of the consequences of performing poorly on a test that she couldn't "catch her breath to express her fear."

"As I dried her tears," Hoover wrote, "I knew that I did not want to stand by and be a part of a system that made any child feel that all that mattered was a number on what I knew was a low quality test."

Yet Hoover expects positive results from the new federal guidance. “I’m hopeful that this will mean that my students will have more time to learn, to innovate, and to imagine,” she explained.

In the announcement, the Department of Education also flagged two novel approaches already under way in Tennessee and in Tulsa, OK, as models for potential success.

The Tennessee Task Force on Student Testing and Assessment was established last spring, nearly a year ahead of the guidelines. Procedures and data around execution of the state’s TNReady exam was scrutinized and collected.

The information was then used to deepen assessment decisions for the state and its various districts. The Task Force specifically looked at yearly summative standardized assessments, formative (both interim and benchmark) assessments, and test preparation and logistics. 

In September 2015, it released 16 recommendations designed to address concerns about too much testing. Unrelated to the Task Force, students taking the TNReady test online suffered a series of “massive” glitches that rendered their tests unusable.

Education experts like Matt Chapman, the CEO of Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a nonprofit that provides research-based assessments and professional development to educators and policymakers, watched the release of the new federal guidance closely.

“Over the last year, NWEA has led a comprehensive effort to help educators better understand and use educational assessments to support student learning and growth,” he said.

When the NWEA surveyed district administrators for its 2014 Make Assessment Matter report, Chapman said, it found that 85% of teachers were not adequately prepared to use assessments. His organization plans to release additional research on the topic in May.

Chapman also pointed to another resource for schools and school leaders: the website AssessmentLiteracy.org, which aims to help teachers understand various uses for assessments and how they can use the data gained to bolster their instruction in the classroom.

“School leaders and districts should prioritize coherent assessment systems over a focus on individual assessments,” Chapman noted, “They should also provide teachers and administrators with appropriate in-service training around the effective use of assessments.”

He stressed that states should take advantage of the flexibility provided under the Every Student Succeeds Act, and that schools and districts should identify an individual mix of assessments and professional development that would work well for their own communities.

“This requires measuring growth as well as proficiency, as is now permitted under the new law,” Chapman explained. “Simultaneously, it’s important to decrease the burden of high-stakes accountability assessments, thereby allowing more time for teaching and learning. So, as long as a given system produces reliable, objective evidence of the performance of each cohort of students as required by law, the flexibility to design the system for local needs can enhance the likelihood that teaching will be better informed and more aligned to individual needs.”

And that, he said, means that learning would be enhanced.

The NWEA's own Task Force on Assessment Education for Teachers was assembled to take a hard look at the state of assessment education across the U.S. Among its members are teaching students, veteran educators, national education organizations, and experts who work in assessment education.

Federal money is also available for districts and states to wrestle with testing assessments. The Enhanced Assessment Grants program provides funding to states in support of the development of efficient and useful assessments.

President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget proposal is going to mirror that of 2016, the Education Department said, with around $403 million to facilitate state assessments that will help states figure out their testing quandaries.

Yet some things haven’t changed. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states can be fiscally sanctioned with reduced or withheld federal funding if more than 5% of their K-12 student population opts out of standardized testing.

That could be concerning to districts as the national opt-out movement continues to show no sign of slowing down.

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Filed Under: K12 Policy & Regulation
Top image credit: Flickr user ccarlstead