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Too Many Tests?

Back to Skills

An opt-out movement gained momentum this spring, with tens of thousands of students sitting out of new standardized tests in states including New York, Maine and New Mexico.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, a panel of testing experts gathered at the Education Writers Association’s recent National Seminar in Chicago to discuss the very predicament.

The conversation started with quantity, but soon turned to quality.

The Council of the Great City Schools reported that students take an average of 113 high-stakes tests between prekindergarten and 12th grade. Panelist Robert Schaeffer, of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (better known as FairTest) illustrated the issue by pulling out a sprawling document listing each of the tests required for one school.

Yes, the panel decided, there are too many tests, but “At the end of the day, you need measures that are consistent and comparable,” said Matt Chingos, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

That’s how teachers can best improve their instruction and increase student progress.

Although Chingos said asking about the number of tests may not be the question — “maybe for some students it’s too many, but for others it’s too few” — he supported a conversation on the quality of tests.

He said the problem is educators want a test that will assess everything but only takes an hour to administer and doesn’t cost anything.

Scott Marion, vice president of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, said some districts have brought the too-much-testing problem on themselves.

“They’re searching for solutions to get better,” he said.

But those solutions don’t always work, just like with federally mandated tests, he said.

Sometimes the districts do not receive results until after students have been released for summer break.

“For improving teaching and learning for the kids who take the tests, we need different kinds of assessments that are closer to the classroom,” Marion said.

He said there should be assessment every day — just not the large-scale formative testing.

“Educators should be assessing every minute and adjusting,” he said. “…It’s a process, an action.”

But the way districts are testing now is not working, Schaeffer said — many don’t know what they are testing for.

He referred to a study from the Center for American Progress that surveyed 14 school districts in seven states and found they tested for 23 distinct purposes, including accountability, English proficiency and teacher evaluations.

But that same study also found that many of the tests collected the same information.

That’s why when Marion works with districts on building a new testing system, he first asks them what they want to know.

“First figure out questions, then think about the evidence that’s going to be necessary to help you actually answer them,” he said.

The conversation looped back around to the opt-out movement.

Although Chingos said too many opt-outs adds noise to already inadequate data, Schaeffer said that’s exactly the point.

“It’s one form of protest that parents of public schools students can take to deliver the message to policy makers,” he said. “…Many view it as an act of civil disobedience. They are trying to send the message that enough is enough.”

The panel also debated whether the opt-out is pushed by middle-class and affluent parents, or “white suburban moms,” as Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it back in 2013.

Marion said that it is the advocates for the poor and disadvantaged — the NAACP, EdTrust and the National Council for Learning Disabilities — that are pushing for annual testing.

“They’re pushing and feel it’s a way to shine a light on their kids to make the states do something,” he said.

But Schaeffer noted the local chapters of those same groups are campaigning to reduce test overkill.

Even Duncan weighed in on the testing conversation during his lunchtime conversation at the seminar. He said assessments are important, but he would challenge states to set a cap on testing.

“I am very sensitive that kids are being over-tested. That’s a problem,” he said. “But I do also think students should be assessed annually. We should figure out if students are growing, if they’re improving or not, and over time, are they really on track to be successful?”