Few issues in K-12 education have been as contentious, particularly since the implementation of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, as standardized testing.
Criticism over the years has focused largely on the impacts of attaching high-stakes to assessment results, because of their connection to teacher and school evaluations. The fear is that this creates an environment that “teaches to the test” at the expense of arguably every subject that isn’t math or reading. In return, that approach risks stifling educators’ abilities to provide students a well-rounded education across all subject areas, as well as their flexibility to innovate with different classroom approaches for fear that testing results not reflect improvement.
To get you up to speed on the trends and issues impacting the current testing environment and help you navigate this current dynamic, we’ve compiled this quick primer covering everything from parent-led opt-out movements to the potential impact of the soon-to-be-implemented Every Student Succeeds Act.
1. Opt-out movements
Parent opposition to standardized testing bred significant opt-out movements in several states. Those movements hit a peak in 2016, with particularly active movements in New York and Colorado risking federal sanctions for those states if they didn’t meet a 95% testing threshold.
The movements themselves were found in a Columbia University Teachers College study to be comprised predominantly of activists who were highly educated, wealthy, white, married and politically liberal. But the movement also included homeschooling parents, childless adults in support of the cause, and parents who hadn’t opted out their kids.
And they also expressed opposition to a variety of other educational issues across the political spectrum, including test-based teacher evaluations, a narrowing of curriculum because of test prep, the corporatization and privatization of education, and the Common Core State Standards.
Still, with standardized testing having risen to become the primary accountability tool for schools under the previous No Child Left Behind law, critics argued that it ultimately forced schools and districts to pay attention to groups of students who they had previously allowed to fall through the cracks.
2. Issues with digital
With the increasing presence of tech in classrooms, annual standardized exams have also gone digital. This has led to notable issues in several states over the last few years, with glitches preventing students from effectively completing exams on time.
In many cases, this has been chalked up to network infrastructure that couldn’t handle the demand of so many students signing on for exams simultaneously. The FCC’s E-rate program can assist schools in upgrading their networks to handle that load, but more planning before rolling out a new initiative is also important, as these issues can be avoided ahead of time if mandates don’t force schools and districts to adopt new testing formats before they’re prepared to do so successfully.
Beyond network issues, navigational limitations have also hindered student performance. A May study from the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed lower scores on digital exams when elementary and middle school students took digital exams that didn’t allow them to revisit previous questions. These design issues are counterintuitive to effective testing strategies utilized on paper-and-pencil formats where students can answer what they know first before revisiting items they were uncertain about.
Aside from requiring testing vendors to create more navigable digital exams, schools and districts may want to have educators use tools like Google Forms to create practice tests that approximate those students will be subjected to. Further design concerns have centered around ensuring accessibility for students with disabilities, particularly the vision-impaired and color-blind, and the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
3. Efforts to find better, less rote ways of testing
Perhaps the greatest and longest-running concern with standardized testing — particularly when high stakes are attached — is that it encourages educators to “teach to the test.” Curriculum in that case essentially becomes focused overwhelmingly on the topics covered on a test, with learning focused on rote memorization over the encouragement of critical thinking.
At its most basic level, it raises a question of whether such a system produces well-prepared and innovative citizens or simply people who are good at taking tests and following orders.
In the No Child Left Behind Era, teaching to the test became problematic in that math and reading gained precedent over other subjects since tests were focused on them. Among critiques are that this helped contribute to current educational gaps in the broader sciences beyond math, as well as civics understanding and the creative thinking that comes with the arts.
On the critical and creative thinking fronts, however, ed tech companies have been working in recent years to rethink testing in a variety of ways. At its most outside-of-the-box, these efforts have included gamifying assessments in a way that would require students to work through a simulation of a plausible real-world experience, displaying subject matter competency rather than the ability to remember the correct answer. Despite concerns that this approach might lead students to take tests less seriously, efforts to produce a working model are ongoing in education as well as the workforce.
4. Impact of ESSA
Of course, the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act — currently underway — is the elephant in the room when it comes to all of the above topics. Under the law as it was written, states are expected to get some leeway on testing and accountability. This is meant to encourage more classroom innovation without the specter of consequences looming over educators should an experiment not fully pan out, in addition to encouraging curricula that provide students a well-rounded education as opposed to one based primarily on what’s tested.
Critics, however, had expressed concern that new approaches under the law that would utilize, for example, interim assessments might not produce the same actionable results that previous summative assessment approaches did. Naturally, both approaches have their pros and cons.
It also remains to be seen how regulations implemented under the Betsy DeVos-led U.S. Department of Education will impact expectations for states under the new law. Republicans have notably expressed frustration with some of the department’s approach to oversight on state plans thus far, but how hard they might ultimately push back is another question entirely.