Study: Test­ing over­whelm­ing schools

Value of many man­dated ex­ams ques­tioned; U.S. pledges to lighten load

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY LYN­D­SEY LAY­TON lyn­d­sey.lay­ton@wash­post.com

The num­ber of stan­dard­ized tests U.S. pub­lic school stu­dents take has ex­ploded in the past decade, with most schools re­quir­ing too many tests of du­bi­ous value, ac­cord­ing to the first com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of the na­tion’s largest dis­tricts.

A typ­i­cal stu­dent takes 112 man­dated stan­dard­ized tests be­tween pre-kinder­garten classes and 12th grade, a new Coun­cil of the Great City Schools study found. By con­trast, most coun­tries that out­per­form the United States on in­ter­na­tional ex­ams test stu­dents three times dur­ing their school ca­reers.

In a video posted to Face­book by the White House on Satur­day, Pres­i­dent Obama pledged to take steps to re­duce test­ing over­load.

In “mod­er­a­tion, smart, strate­gic tests can help us mea­sure our kids’ progress in school, and it can help them learn,” Obama said. “But I also hear from par­ents who, rightly, worry about too much test­ing, and from teach­ers who feel so much pres­sure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teach­ing and learn­ing, both for them and for the stu­dents. I want to fix that.”

The heav­i­est test­ing load falls on the na­tion’s eighth-graders, who spend an av­er­age of 25.3 hours dur­ing the school year tak­ing stan­dard­ized tests, uni­form ex­ams re­quired of all stu­dents in a par­tic­u­lar grade or course of study. Test­ing af­fects even the youngest stu­dents, with the av­er­age pre-K class giv­ing 4.1 stan­dard­ized tests, the re­port found.

The study an­a­lyzed tests given in 66 ur­ban dis­tricts in the 20142015 school year. It did not count quizzes or tests cre­ated by class­room teach­ers, and it did not ad­dress the amount of time schools de­vote to test prepa­ra­tion.

It por­trays a jum­ble, where tests have been lay­ered upon tests un­der man­dates from Congress, the U.S. Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment, and state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments, many of which the study ar­gues have ques­tion­able value to teach­ers and stu­dents. Test­ing com­pa­nies that ag­gres­sively mar­ket new ex­ams also share the blame, the study said.

“Ev­ery­one is cul­pa­ble here,” said Michael Casserly, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Coun­cil of the Great City Schools. “You’ve got mul­ti­ple ac­tors re­quir­ing, urg­ing and en­cour­ag­ing a va­ri­ety of tests for very dif­fer­ent rea­sons that don’t nec­es­sar­ily add up to a clear pic­ture of how our kids are do­ing. The re­sult is an as­sess­ment sys­tem that’s not very in­tel­li­gent and not co­her­ent.”

Ahead of the study’s re­lease, the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment of­fered a mea culpa of sorts, is­su­ing a 10-page “ac­tion plan” to states and lo­cal dis­tricts that spells out ways to re­duce re­dun­dant and low-qual­ity test­ing. The depart­ment pledged to make money and staff avail­able to help, and promised to amend some of its poli­cies.

“At the fed­eral, state and lo­cal level, we have all sup­ported poli­cies that have con­trib­uted to the prob­lem in im­ple­men­ta­tion,” Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Arne Dun­can said in a state­ment. “We can and will work with states, dis­tricts and ed­u­ca­tors to help solve it.”

The agency is rec­om­mend­ing that states cap the amount of time de­voted to test-tak­ing to no more than 2 per­cent of class time. A sim­i­lar pro­posal is part of the bill pend­ing in the Sen­ate to re­place No Child Left Be­hind. Casserly cau­tioned against an ar­bi­trary limit, say­ing he is con­cerned that states would in­dis­crim­i­nately lop off tests to meet a fed­eral test­ing cap. A bet­ter ap­proach, he said, would be a co­or­di­nated ef­fort among all play­ers — fed­eral, state and lo­cal — to come up with a more thought­ful sys­tem.

The coun­cil’s re­port adds fuel to the na­tional de­bate about test­ing that has spurred var­i­ous “opt out” move­ments among par­ents and stu­dents and has put grow­ing po­lit­i­cal pres­sure on Congress and state leg­is­la­tures to cut back.

In one of the most no­table at­tempts to re­duce test­ing, Mi­ami-Dade County Pub­lic Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Al­berto Car­valho ear­lier this year cut the num­ber of dis­trict-cre­ated endof-course ex­ams from 300 to 10 and elim­i­nated them en­tirely for ele­men­tary schools.

“I be­lieve in ac­count­abil­ity,” said Car­valho, who runs the na­tion’s fourth-largest school dis­trict. “But fewer as­sess­ments of higher qual­ity are bet­ter. . . . What we have now across the coun­try is con­fus­ing, hard to nav­i­gate and, I be­lieve, abu­sive of both teacher and stu­dent time.”

Cal­i­for­nia elim­i­nated its high school grad­u­a­tion test three weeks ago, join­ing Min­nesota, Mis­sis­sippi, Alaska, Rhode Is­land and South Car­olina. Vir­ginia has re­duced its num­ber of state-level tests, and Mont­gomery County, Md., last month put an end to its high school fi­nal ex­ams.

Stan­dard­ized test­ing has caused in­tense de­bate on Capi­tol Hill as law­mak­ers work to craft a re­place­ment for No Child Left Be­hind. Test­ing crit­ics tried un­suc­cess­fully to erase the fed­eral re­quire­ment that schools test in math and read­ing. Civil rights ad­vo­cates pushed back, ar­gu­ing that tests are an im­por­tant safe­guard for strug­gling stu­dents be­cause pub­licly re­ported test scores il­lu­mi­nate the achieve­ment gap be­tween his­tor­i­cally un­der­served stu­dents and their more af­flu­ent peers.

But even test­ing sup­port­ers agree about an over­load.

“For those of us who sup­port an­nual as­sess­ments, it doesn’t mean we sup­port this crazi­ness,” said Kati Hay­cock, pres­i­dent of the Ed­u­ca­tion Trust, an ad­vo­cacy group fo­cused on re­duc­ing the achieve­ment gap. “There’s a clear prob­lem here.”

Test­ing tends to be con­cen­trated be­tween Fe­bru­ary and May. The coun­cil’s study found nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of re­dun­dancy, with stu­dents of­ten tak­ing an end-of-course test, an Ad­vanced Place­ment test and a fi­nal exam for the same course.

In 40 per­cent of dis­tricts sur­veyed, test re­sults aren’t avail­able un­til the fol­low­ing school year, mak­ing them use­less for teach­ers who want to use re­sults to help guide their work in the class­room, Casserly said.

Jef­frey Cipriani teaches sec­ond grade at Or­chard Gar­dens K-8 Pi­lot School in Bos­ton. Even though his stu­dents are not in a grade that is re­quired by fed­eral law to be tested, the Bos­ton Pub­lic Schools has him ad­min­is­ter read­ing tests to his stu­dents three times a year. Be­cause the tests are in­di­vid­ual and can be as long as 90 min­utes, it takes Cipriani about three weeks to test the whole class.

“It’s a colos­sal amount of time,” he said. “I prob­a­bly spend about 60 hours not teach­ing read­ing but just sort of giv­ing those as­sess­ments. They’re valu­able but not that valu­able.”

The study found no cor­re­la­tion be­tween the amount of test­ing in a dis­trict and the way its stu­dents per­form on the Na­tional As­sess­ment of Ed­u­ca­tional Progress (NAEP), a fed­eral test given ev­ery two years that is the only con­sis­tent mea­sure of stu­dent achieve­ment across state lines.

“We can’t as­sess our way to aca­demic ex­cel­lence,” said Car­valho, of the Mi­ami-Dade school sys­tem.

While pub­lic schools have been ad­min­is­ter­ing stan­dard­ized tests for gen­er­a­tions, the cur­rent buildup be­gan af­ter Congress passed No Child Left Be­hind in 2001 and re­quired states to test all stu­dents in math and read­ing an­nu­ally from third grade through eighth grade, and once in high school.

States that failed to make aca­demic progress faced a se­ries of con­se­quences. States and dis­tricts re­sponded by adding new tests dur­ing the school year to en­sure stu­dents were on track.

“You pre­pare for the test to pre­pare for the test to pre­pare for the test,” said Robert Scha­ef­fer of the Na­tional Cen­ter for Fair and Open Test­ing, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion crit­i­cal of stan­dard­ized test­ing.

And, the study found, Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion poli­cies have es­ca­lated the is­sue.

To win a grant un­der the com­pet­i­tive Race to the Top pro­gram, or to re­ceive a waiver from No Child Left Be­hind, states had to eval­u­ate teach­ers based in part on stu­dent test scores. Since fed­eral law re­quired stan­dard­ized tests only in math and read­ing in cer­tain grades, states added tests in so­cial stud­ies, sci­ence, lan­guages — even phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion — to have scores they could use to eval­u­ate teach­ers.

“Many of the ap­palling things re­ported on here are the di­rect re­sult of the way the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has ap­proached this,” said Marc Tucker, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Cen­ter on Ed­u­ca­tion and the Econ­omy. “The ac­count­abil­ity sys­tem is what’s driv­ing this, and it’s fun­da­men­tally flawed.”

In its new guid­ance to states, the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment tries to soften its em­pha­sis on us­ing test scores to eval­u­ate teach­ers and urges states and lo­cal dis­tricts to cut down on re­dun­dant and low-qual­ity tests.

The agency also pledged to work with states to amend waivers they have re­ceived un­der No Child Left Be­hind “to re­duce test­ing in grades and sub­jects that are not sub­ject to fed­eral test­ing re­quire­ments and/or find al­ter­na­tive ways” to judge stu­dent achieve­ment and use that to eval­u­ate teach­ers.

“The time is now to take some new and mean­ing­ful steps to help schools deal with test­ing where it is un­nec­es­sary,” said John B. King Jr., who is slated to suc­ceed Dun­can in Jan­uary. “This is some­thing the pres­i­dent and I have talked about, and it will be a key pri­or­ity for me in our work with states and dis­tricts over the next 14 months.”

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