12/30/14 5:34 AM EST :: Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is making reauthorization of the law one of his biggest priorities — and testing is expected to take center stage. He plans to tackle the issue during a hearing early in the new year. Under serious consideration: slashing the number of federally required tests or even doing away with them all together.
This political alliance is part of a larger nationwide movement, buoyed by a grass-roots crusade led by parents and teachers who reject the testing regimes that they say have come to dominate public schools for the past decade.
“We are actively exploring the question of whether the federal mandate on annual tests is warranted,” one GOP aide said. The goal is to give states more flexibility in how they track student progress, report those results to the public and hold schools accountable for all kids.
A bipartisan bill gaining momentum among lawmakers would give states grants to audit their testing regimes — and weed out unnecessary exams.
“Annual statewide assessments are critical to ensuring that all students are held to the same high standards and parents, teachers and communities have the information they need about how their children are doing every year,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said when the bill was introduced. “However, in many places, the amount of testing that is redundant or simply not helpful for instruction has become a real problem.”
While Duncan supports that bill, he and President Barack Obama oppose ending the annual testing requirements in NCLB, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002. They argue that the yearly tests are vital for assessing student progress and holding schools accountable for making sure every child advances.
The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have railed against what they see as too much testing, especially the kind with consequences. AFT President Randi Weingarten said the annual federal testing mandate must change. The union and GOP can both agree that NCLB’s provisions have “eclipsed what the law was supposed to do, which was improve teaching and learning,” she said.
Now, it’s all about sanctions for those who don’t make the grade, she said. The scores can affect which students advance to the next grade, which teachers keep their jobs and which schools are shut down.
State and school district leaders aren’t waiting on Congress to act. They can’t do anything about the federally mandated exams in reading and math, but they’re cutting back on other tests now considered redundant or low quality.
Many states require standardized tests in science and social studies. Districts often require that kids take multiple practice exams to prepare for those high-stakes tests, since on top of all that, many schools require still more standardized testing to gather data on each student’s strengths and weaknesses throughout the year.
And that doesn’t even count the regular classroom tests that teachers typically give after every unit, Advanced Placement exams, or the ACT and the SAT.
Rhode Island is embarking on a statewide initiative with local superintendents to conduct audits of existing exams. And Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is working with districts to analyze all of the exams given to meet state, federal and local requirements while looking at how each test is used. In Oklahoma, first-grade teachers sent a letter home this November to parents claiming that they spend 288 instructional hours on required tests.
“So, 288 instructional hours, or 72 days … yes, 72 days of our school year we, as teachers, are tied up assessing students with the mandated assessments,” they write. “Why are our schools failing? Why are children not learning how to read? We think the numbers above answer those questions.”
While they won’t back down on annual tests, Duncan and Obama recently responded to pressure to do something. They’re supporting a new effort to reduce testing led by state education chiefs and large urban-district leaders. The Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools will soon release findings that show where tests can be eliminated or improved. And they’ll announce a task force to develop recommendations for states and districts looking to cut back.
Executive Director Michael Casserly said already, his group has found that students in one school system take up to 113 standardized exams from kindergarten through senior year of high school.
Parents aren’t waiting, either. Some are instructing their children to rebel by sitting at their desks, tearing open the plastic on their standardized test packets and then pushing the materials away. Kids are logging on to computers for online exams but then refusing to answer the questions.
It’s all part of the opt-out movement, which has exploded as states and districts strain under pressure to raise the bar by deploying tougher academic standards, tests and teacher evaluations. Opt-out advocates hope to starve the annual, federally mandated testing beast of the data it subsists on. If kids don’t take the tests, they produce no data. And if there’s no data, then there’s no use for the tests.
“One district told me it’s the same thing as not taking your kids to the doctor,” said Jeanette Deutermann, a parent advocate for Long Island Opt Out. “’How would you know if something was wrong with them?’ they said. We don’t want to hear that we don’t know what we’re doing for our kids. It’s patronizing.”
Deutermann said she saw a noticeable change in her son, now in middle school, when New York began giving tests aligned to the Common Core during the 2012-13 school year. Test prep intensified to the point where he began having stomach aches, crying over homework and begging not to go to school, she said.
Deutermann got in touch with the national group, United Opt Out, and created a Facebook page. The Facebook group now boasts more than 17,000 members. And across New York last spring, as many as 60,000 students refused to take the state’s Common Core tests.
In Florida, Cindy Hamilton went on a similar crusade with the launch of Opt Out Orlando. Members of the group are talking with state lawmakers, urging them to consider action on testing in the upcoming legislative session, she said. Hamilton has helped launch two dozen more opt out groups.
She said she has no patience for federal officials who “just want to talk about overtesting.”
“When you say that Arne Duncan wants to talk about overtesting … he brought us amped-up testing and he did everything he could to get it accepted,” she said. “Has he really heard families of kids who are throwing up? Teachers who have had to relearn their profession? He hasn’t been to our town.”
Her voice breaks as she talks.
“Come talk to the dozens of teachers who told me they want to quit because they don’t want to participate in an abusive education system,” Hamilton said. “It is heartbreaking what we’re doing to kids.”
Why test every year?
Annual assessments are built into federal law. Education policy analysts say if one good thing has come out of the much-maligned No Child Left Behind, it’s that states are forced to monitor how students from low-income families and minority students are performing. States have had to report and make public the data on how these students have fared.
”We’re responsible for student learning every single day and every single year,” an Education Department official said. “I want us to never back away from the fact that it’s our responsibility … Parents have a right to know how their students are progressing. Students have a right to know how they measure up.”
Some lawmakers and teachers unions want to shift to grade-span testing, or testing students once each in elementary school, middle school and high school.
But an Education Department official said grade-span testing can’t provide the same data that annual testing can.
“If you’re waiting every three years to measure student learning, then what happens when a student has been falling behind?” the official said. “Do you wait until that third year to figure out what their interventions ought to be?”
Assessments have become a “lightning rod” among people as states work to deploy new, more rigorous tests, the official said. And anxiety is understandable, especially as the tests are tied to new, more rigorous teacher evaluation systems, the official noted.
Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said his group and the Council of the Great City Schools don’t have an official position on federally mandated, annual testing. The group is trying to find common ground among members. But as a former state testing director in Oregon and a parent, Minnich said he believes annual testing provides value.
If parents participating in the opt-out movement don’t see how the tests are important, “then that’s a problem and we need to work on that,” he said.
But Darcey Addo, a Florida teacher, parent activist and doctoral candidate researching overtesting, said student test scores don’t paint a real picture of learning.
We can count numbers from here until next Christmas and you’ll never get an idea of what it’s like to be a teacher or a student in a school.
“We can count numbers from here until next Christmas and you’ll never get an idea of what it’s like to be a teacher or a student in a school,” she said.
Qualitative analyses, or studies that use descriptive data, would prove far more valuable than those that focus on hard numbers and test scores, Addo said. But those types of studies are often time-consuming and sometimes dismissed as “not real science.”
It’s far from over
Minnich said it’s important to note that a lot of states are already taking action to cut time spent on testing in other areas while taking on new annual exams. Connecticut is piloting a tool developed by Achieve to help district leaders take stock of the number of tests given and what purpose they serve. Gov. Dannel Malloy also proposed using the SAT for high school juniors instead of the Smarter Balanced exam because the SAT can double as a test for school accountability and college entrance. The Education Department is providing states with technical assistance to reduce testing.
But the drumbeat on federally mandated annual testing is expected to only get louder as states deploy new Common Core tests created by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced testing groups.
While Smarter Balanced has developed only one test in math and English for high school students, PARCC has created tests in both subjects for students in ninth, 10th and 11th grades. Some think that’s way too much testing, considering that high school students may also be saddled with college entrance exams, end-of-course exams, Advanced Placement exams and more.
Ohio lawmakers introduced a bill this fall that would limit state testing for most students to four hours a year. The PARCC exams alone is expected to take nine to 10 hours.
State lawmakers behind the bill said that college entrance exams like the ACT could do the same job in less time.
- Maggie Severns contributed to this report.