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How testing practices have to change in U.S. public schools

Florida teachers protest in Tallahassee against state’s education policies. (Photo by Mike Archer, Used with permission)

There has been some testing reform progress made in the last year or so as state and federal officials finally began to acknowledge a grassroots movement by parents, educators, students and activists, who have protested the excessive and harmful use of high-stakes standardized tests. As part of that movement, hundreds of thousands of students “opted out” of mandated high-stakes standardized tests, with more than 20 percent of students in New York State doing so in each of the last two years.

“Accountability” systems used to evaluate students, teachers and even schools have been based on student standardized test scores, which were wrongly seen as the most important measure of how much a student learned, how well a teacher taught, and how effective schools were in closing the achievement gap.

Now it’s a new year and a new opportunity for states to construct new assessment policies and tests that are fair and effective. How to do it? This post offers one path, by Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, a non-profit dedicated to ending the abuse and misuse of standardized tests.

By Monty Neill

Last year was a good one for testing reformers. More states dropped graduation exams. Many districts cut back testing time. The grassroots assessment reform movement grew stronger and more diverse. This new year can be even better if assessment reformers take advantage of opportunities under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

ESSA ends most punitive federal accountability mandates. Of course, we cannot predict what President-elect Donald Trump and his education secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos, will try to do on testing and accountability. We do know that it will take concerted grassroots organizing to halt harmful state and local policies, creating space to improve education and implement new assessment systems.

The key testing reform demands remain:

  • End high-stakes test uses for students, teachers, and schools;
  • Reduce testing to the federally mandated minimum; and
  • Implement educator-controlled, local performance assessments.

In this blog, FairTest shares our recommendations on testing practices that need to change. Let’s take each core demand in turn.

States and districts need to end their high-stakes testing mandates.

  • End state requirements that students pass standardized exams to graduate or be promoted to the next grade. These are not required by federal law. The number of states with exit exams shrank from 27 to 13 in recent years, and the use of grade promotion exams declined. With strong evidence that these practices are harmful, the momentum is now on the side of test reformers.
  • End policies that judge educators by student standardized exam scores. ESSA eliminated this federal mandate. Now groups must prevent states from perpetuating these dangerous policies. This testing misuse forces teachers to narrow curriculum and teach to the test, hurting children emotionally and academically.
  • End state punitive sanctions placed on schools and districts. Nothing in the new federal law requires staff to be fired or schools to be closed, taken over by the state, or turned over to private management. States must remove such practices from law and regulations.
  • Change state policy from punishment to assistance. Fight for tests to be little more than half the weight in your state’s formula for ranking schools, the minimum percentage allowed under ESSA. Ensure your state adopts multiple, educationally sound indicators that provide a richer picture of the school. States should provide assistance, including additional funding, not punishment, to schools identified as “low performers.” ESSA requires states to rank all schools and act to improve the lowest performing. States can scrap punitive actions and, instead, provide needed help.

Students should take far fewer state and local tests.

  • No state standardized tests beyond those mandated by ESSA. This means ending history or other tests the state adds on to federally required exams in reading, math and science.
  • No standardized interim, benchmark, predictive, formative, or other such tests, including those embedded in commercial on-line curricula. Districts often add many tests, further narrowing curriculum and eating up valuable class time. Districts also are beginning to purchase commercial, computer-based products that combine curriculum with tests. These place children in front of computers for too long and produce data that could well be hacked or misused. ESSA includes under the term “innovation.” The products are promoted by test companies and the right wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Parents, educators and their allies must educate and organize to block these initiatives, which undermine school quality.
  • A ban on standardized testing in pre-K through grade 3. Tests of young children are less accurate, more likely to be misused and more likely to inflict emotional damage. Some states have already done this; all should.
  • Transparency in the number of tests, their uses, and time spent on test preparation. Demand districts do a comprehensive audit. Unions can survey their members to expose the ways testing narrows and undermines teaching and learning while revealing to the public the excessive amounts of testing.

Create better assessments.

  • With lowered accountability mandates, schools and districts will be under less pressure to boost state test scores. This provides much greater opportunity for districts to return assessment to local educator control while ensuring teachers have strong assessing skills. They can construct local systems that promote student engagement, creativity and critical thinking skills, which are stifled by teaching to standardized exams.
  • Push to have your state become one of seven that will be allowed to completely overhaul their testing systems under ESSA’s Innovative Assessment pilot program. Ensure that the overhaul includes primarily locally based, teacher-controlled assessments, such as projects and portfolios. FairTest’s report, Assessment Matters: Constructing Model State Systems to Replace Testing Overkill, explains how states and districts can do this.
  • Parents, teachers, students and other reformers must persuade state and local officials to transform these opportunities into good policy. Communities can come together to identify what they value in curriculum, instruction, assessment, school climate, opportunity to learn and other aspects of schooling. Schools can then build new assessments on that foundation.

States legislators should pass opt-out laws.

  • In 2015-16, a few more states passed laws recognizing the right of parents to hold their children out of standardized testing, bringing the number to eight. Similar opt-out bills advanced in several other legislatures. ESSA recognizes that families can refuse testing if a state has an opt-out law. The new federal law does mandate 95 percent test participation, but leaves it up to states to decide what to do if a school or district does not reach that threshold.  However, federal regulations pressure states to take harsh actions against schools in which parents refuse the tests.

The assessment reform movement has demonstrated the capacity to win important victories. In 2017, parents, teachers, students and their allies can build on these gains to mobilize more people in more communities to win even greater victories.