Why testing prevails in K-12 education
Educators say mandatory assessments put a strain on learning, but they persist as an evaluation tool
The Obama administration on Friday announced new priorities surrounding the Enhancement Assessment Grant program, designed to help states and districts get smarter about standardized testing. The new efforts build upon an October 2015 announcement of President Barack Obama's new Testing Action Plan, which called for a reexamination of the way tests are used in schools.
The president said students "should only take tests that are worth taking — tests that are high quality, aimed at good instruction, and make sure everyone is on track," testing shouldn't take up too much classroom time, and the assessments should be one tool in a more complete toolbox to help schools get an indication of student progress and school and teacher effectiveness.
In the April 15 announcement, U.S. Department of Education officials expounded upon those priorities, saying states should look to develop "innovative assessment item types and design approaches, [improve] assessment scoring and score reporting, and [conduct] an inventory of state and local assessment systems to eliminate unnecessary, redundant or low-quality tests."
This focus on changing the way the nation looks at tests is a long time coming for many teachers, who lament the proliferation of testing in the post-No Child Left Behind era. Comments on the subject from teachers range from "testing is the bane of my existence!" to the more tame "Students are over-tested" and "just numbers."
Justin Fitzgerald, principal of Bond Mill Elementary School in Prince George’s County, MD, called the volume of mandatory testing “the biggest obstacle that we face and other schools face.”
“The amount of testing, specifically in grades 3-5, is quite daunting. Every educator I know feels that time would be better served allowing teachers to teach skills and concepts,” he said via email. “However, since so much emphasis is placed on mandatory testing, it lessens the amount of time teachers actually get to teach.”
Fitzgerald’s points hone in on a key difference in teaching styles that educators are having to grapple with: teaching for content mastery vs. teaching for test scoring.
“When we look at what the kids are told, they learn how many more points they have to get, not what they need to do to improve their writing, improve their understanding of mathematical concepts, but how many points they have to get” to pass the test, said Lorrie A. Shepard, dean and distinguished professor of research and evaluation methodology in the School of Education at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Shepard said during a Tuesday session at the American Educational Research Association meeting called "How Much Testing and for What Purpose? Public Scholarship in the Debate About Educational Assessment and Accountability" that she worries the overemphasis on testing creates "this culture of scores and ranking," adding another level of stratification for students.
"This country spends far too much time and money — the size of the investment is enormous — too much money on standardized tests," said Shepard, who also said the tests don’t provide feedback about how to make schools better or what specific skills and concepts students need to improve on.
U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. participated in a Friday roundtable in Tulsa, OK, on the mixed effectiveness of testing. “Done well, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. Done poorly, in excess or without clear purpose, they take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creative approaches from our classrooms," he said in a statement released by the department.
Dr. David C. Berliner, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Education at Arizona State University, agreed.
“The amount of money being spent on testing and the platforms for testing could well be spent on other things like early childhood education, teacher salaries and that sort of thing,” he said during the panel. Testing is “costing us a lot of money, a lot of time, maybe there are other things, other information that we can garner without the testing,” he said. “Can we get information that is useful without the time and money spent on tests?”
Shepard said yes.
“We would have better data if for school accountability, [and to gauge] national trends, we use matrix sampling over a broader array of content demands than reading and mathematics.”
“Right now, we’re locked into this idea that we can’t trust the data unless every student takes a mini-ACT test each year in preparation for the ACT they will take later on” in their educational careers, she added.
But Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, said on the same panel that testing is important to the education landscape.
“In my opinion, we have to continue regular assessments,” he said. “It is impossible to think of ever improving a system where you don’t have good measurements of what’s going on in a system.”
“You have to keep track of where you are, and to an economist, providing incentives on what you were able to achieve actually makes sense,” he added.
Hanushek acknowledged there are some problems with the way tests are framed.
“We’re coming off the NCLB era, and that has had ramifications for how people think about testing and how testing is done,” he said. Acknowledging the policy as a “badly-designed law,” Hanushek argued it is still important to recognize that “even with this badly-designed law, there have been gains in achievement across the board.”
Perhaps nowhere is the politics of testing more evident than in the growing opt-out movement.
“The opting out movement I see as a bad thing for the U.S.,” Hanushek said. “I think that the U.S. will be damaged if, in fact, we have NY state-style opting out, because what that does is eliminate the use of any of the data and make it impossible to keep track and find out who is doing well and how we should proceed.”
In an area like California, the panel pointed out, in which political awareness and engagement is high, the opt-out movement is still fairly low, because testing in that state is not linked to teacher performance evaluations.
Shepard said there needs to be an intentional effort toward “taking the politics out of testing, not trying to use the test as a lever for change — forcing teach this way so that [way] your scores will go up — keep good data at the national assessment level or the state level and assure parents” by pointing to the consistent quality of the work students are doing.
Hanushek argued in favor or measuring “learning gains instead of a level of achievement, instead of setting some arbitrary level of what is proficient,” and suggested the idea that the federal government drive testing policy is “completely backwards.”
“The federal government and the nation as a whole should be declaring what we need to know in terms of achievement, and states and local districts should be determining how to do that,” Hanushek said, underscoring criticisms over the federal government’s recent proclivity for dictating the how, but leaving the what to learn up to states.
But even the idea that district leaders and politicians on any level are having these conversations apart from the educators themselves is the wrong approach. Fitzgerald said educators must be more involved in the decision-making process, since they are the ones most affected by the policy decisions.
“If you have a committee in which teachers, administrators, educators, etc. participate, there is a very strong chance that those decisions are more realistic for schools to achieve and in turn, result in progress being made,” he said.
“The most effective change in policies is brought about by those who work directly in schools,” Fitzgerald continued. “Too often, decisions are being made by people who haven't been in an actual school in years. The end result is that a person or group of people make a poor decision, then schools are forced to adhere to it because that's what they are being told to do.”
The Obama administration recently proposed a teacher-led effort "to ensure fewer, better and fairer tests" for students.
“Across the country, educators are leading the way on innovative ideas to strike the right balance on testing. We’re committed to supporting that work," King said.
"In moderation, I believe smart, strategic tests can help us measure our kids’ progress in school," Obama said in an October 2015 open letter announcing his Testing Action Plan.
Still, Berliner cautioned the need to consider the economic motivation for the push for testing.
“Testing...makes a lot of money. Lots of it. So of course we have to be really careful that we really need a test … just like we have to be careful that we really need a prescription” that might be prescribed by a doctor for any ailment, he said. “I don’t think there’s any difference between a prescription we have and the tests that we have for a school. We have to figure out if they work...are there any alternatives?”
Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's look at what public schools can learn from their private peers on the road to School 2.0.
Follow Autumn A. Arnett on Twitter