A Change in Rhetoric Around Standardized Testing

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, November 2, 2015

Almost fourteen years after the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the standardized testing movement finally seems to be losing some steam. Over the past few years, there has been growing concern among the public about the amount of standardized testing occurring in the nation’s public schools. In some states, parents have begun “opting out” their children from standardized tests in protest, and one recent Phi Delta Kappan poll revealed that 67% of Americans felt that there was “too much emphasis on standardized testing” in their neighborhood’s schools.

Alarmingly High Levels of Testing

Photo Courtesy of Peeter Jontes

Photo Courtesy of Peeter Jontes

But exactly how much standardized testing is occurring in the nation’s schools was largely a mystery until last week, when the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization comprised of superintendents and school board members from the nation’s largest urban school systems, released the preliminary results of a two-year-long study on student testing. The study showed alarmingly high levels of testing. It found that students, in fulfillment of federal, state, and district mandates, take an average of 112.3 standardized tests over the course of their academic careers (preK-12) – that’s an average of about 8 tests per year!

While the sheer number of tests may be distressing in its own right, the amount of time students spend taking (and prepping for) the tests appears equally concerning. The Council found that 3rd-graders spend an average of 20.6 hours taking standardized tests each year and that 8th-graders spend an average of 25.3 hours each year. Put another way, the average 8th-grader spends about 4.22 days of school, or roughly 2.34% of total instructional time each year just taking tests. What’s worse is that the total amount of time spent on testing, which includes preparing for the tests, taking practice exams, or participating in other “drill and kill” exercises at the behest of teachers, is even larger. And despite all this time spent on testing, the Council found that there has been no correlation between the number of tests taken, or the amount of time spent taking tests, and performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a biannual nationally-administered exam that provides a snapshot of overall student achievement.

U.S. Department of Education Scales Back

In anticipation of the Council’s report, the U.S. Department of Education, which under President Obama has aggressively scaled up the nation’s standardized testing regime, released its own “Testing Action Plan” and offered its own sobering appraisal of the state of assessments. In the release, the Department reiterated the importance of standardized tests as diagnostic tools, but at the same time it appeared poised to scale back its long-standing emphasis on standardized testing, particularly for teacher evaluation purposes. “The Administration bears some of the responsibility for [over-testing] and is committed to being part of the solution,” the Department stated.

The Department then laid out a series of suggestions and guiding principles to help governmental agencies address concerns about over-testing – none of which have the force of law, but all of which mark a point of departure from the Administration’s previous rhetoric on the issue. Number one on the list was to ensure that the tests were “worth taking”:

“Testing should be a part of good instruction, not a departure from it….Assessments should present useful information and questions that push students’ critical thinking skills, so that students gain valuable experience even while taking them. And assessments should provide timely, actionable feedback to students, parents and educators that can be used to guide instruction and additional supports for students…Assessments should happen only when necessary to accomplish those goals.”

A More Sensible Testing Policy

The Department proposed capping the amount of time spent on testing at 2% of instructional time, and it offered financial support for states to conduct “testing audits” to determine if testing resources could be deployed more judiciously. And in a move that may have even greater impacts long term, the Department hinted at a possible change of course, writing that “no test should be given solely for the purpose of educator evaluation.”

While critics remain skeptical of the Administration’s sincerity on this issue, the Administration’s admission that it may have strayed too far in its promotion of standardized testing is courageous and promising insofar as it might begin to move the nation towards a more sensible testing policy focused on student learning.

Contact David: dwc@msu.edu

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.