Back to Skills

Taking Stock of Student Testing

Back to Skills

As states and districts debate which standardized tests are best for students, they are evaluating many factors, including curriculum alignment, the amount of time the assessments take, and how soon the results come in.

During an Education Writers Association conference in Boston this month, analysts and education leaders explored how students, teachers, and school systems are adjusting to changes in testing, and probed the challenges in making sense of this complex topic.

For starters, how much standardized testing really goes on in schools today? Who requires it? What does it tell us? Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools shared the results of a unique “inventory” report  his organization conducted that sheds light on these and other questions.

The study finds that the average student in a big-city school system takes about 112 mandatory tests between prekindergarten and 12th grade, with approximately eight each year.

The report, released last October by the Council of Great City Schools, was based on a survey and analysis of 66 member districts, including those in Boston, the District of Columbia, New York City, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. The report listed all assessments the districts administer in an attempt to see whether some test students “too much.” It includes those administered to fulfill requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, as well as many other mandatory assessments that originate at the state and local levels. Two key goals of the study were to compare and improve testing practices in urban systems.

“Probably the thing of greatest interest was the amount of time required to take the tests,” Casserly said during the EWA panel on testing. On average, he said, the assessments take up about 4.2 days in a 180-day school year, or 2.3 percent of school time.

“There was no correlation between the amount of testing time and whether kids did any better in reading and math,” Casserly noted.

The report found many tests are redundant and are not aligned with standards or with each other, he said. In addition, results are often not reported soon enough to inform instruction.

“By the time test results get back to teachers in the classroom,” Casserly said, “it’s old news and they can’t really do anything about it.”

The Massachusetts Experience

Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of Massachusetts’ public schools, also participated in the EWA discussion on testing. He said his state has seen steady gains over time for all students – including low-income children and students of color – on tests administered through the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, known as MCAS. Unlike California, which recently suspended its high school exit exam, Massachusetts requires all students to show proficiency in math and English language arts on its state assessment to graduate.

“I argue it has prompted schools to be more diligent about their program of instruction and attending to students they might have turned their back on had this requirement not been in place,” Chester said.

Still, like many states, he said Massachusetts has more work to do in preparing students for college and careers. The state this year gave districts the option of choosing between the MCAS and PARCC, a test created through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of states that includes Massachusetts. Some other states, including California, are part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which has created a similar test pegged to the Common Core state standards.

“We’re in a nation where what state you grow up in is less important,” Chester said. “Are we testing the right stuff?”

Next year, Chester said, Massachusetts plans to roll out a revised assessment, dubbed MCAS 2.0, that will incorporate some test items from PARCC. The action comes as many states that previously were on track to use PARCC or Smarter Balanced have shifted gears.

Linda Hanson, a K-5 literacy coach in the Arlington, Mass. school district and the president of the Arlington teachers’ union, said she helped facilitate focus groups with parents and teachers about both the MCAS and PARCC recently to discuss concerns and expectations. Concerns she heard included the importance of building students’ keyboarding skills and addressing the stress on students associated with PARCC’s testing time limits. MCAS and Smarter Balanced, on the other hand, are untimed tests.

Other concerns included the grade-appropriateness of questions, essay writing requirements, accommodations for special-needs students, and the amount of time spent testing, Hanson said at the EWA event.

“An overriding concern was the increase in the number of testing sessions overall,” she said, explaining that the district spent about two hours a day for five weeks administering PARCC assessments.

‘Losing Evidence’

Andrew Ho, who specializes in testing issues at Harvard University, stressed the importance of looking at student progress and achievement gaps over time in his remarks at the Boston panel. He said that focusing solely on a percent proficient in a single year does not provide adequate context to understand trends, such as growth or decline in specific areas or among subgroups of students.

When states switch from one test to another, they can’t keep track of trend data, said Ho.

“We’re losing any sense of history of where we were and how much progress we’ve made,” he said.

Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools agreed, saying many states lost valuable data about the effectiveness of federal School Improvement Grants when they switched tests.

“The more states change tests,” he said, “the more you’re losing evidence about whether or not particular reforms are working on the ground.”

Hanson said tests should be as specific as possible to inform instruction, so teachers can determine what students need more of, who needs to be challenged more, and what kinds of remediation are necessary.

Many states, Ho said, don’t do a good job of using tests to adapt their instruction.

“Tests are tools of policy,” he said. “But they should also be tools of pedagogy.”