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Editorial: Testing the Limits



Sunday, November 01, 2015
Late last month, in response to growing complaints from teachers, parents and some lawmakers, the Obama administration recommended that public schools limit the number of tests students take and called on Congress to review federal mandates that have turned school districts into testing centers.

The announcement was surprising, because the Obama administration has been keen to use high-stakes standardized tests to evaluate not only student achievement but also teacher performance. Furthermore, testing and accountability have been the pillars of education reform efforts for the past two decades. Eager to raise academic standards and close achievement gaps, state and federal officials alike pushed school districts to test students more often and more rigorously.

For example, No Child Left Behind, the federal education law signed by George W. Bush in 2002, mandated annual standardized testing in grades 3 through 8 and in high school to measure academic progress — a notable development in a country that, historically, shunned federal interference in classroom practices. The Obama administration upped the stakes with its Race to the Top program, which ties teacher evaluations to standardized test scores — if school districts expect to receive federal aid, that is.

But the politicians may have tested the limits of what teachers, parents and students can bear. The federal testing program has been unpopular — many parents, in fact, opt out. Furthermore, the springtime ritual is just part of the typical test inventory in most school districts. That inventory includes routine tests of basic skills, course subjects, college readiness, even tests to assess readiness to sit for the federally mandated tests, which were revised recently to align with national curriculum standards called the Common Core.

“In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students,” said the U.S. Department of Education in a statement released Oct. 24. “The administration bears some of the responsibility for this, and we are committed to being part of the solution.”

What the administration’s “testing action plan” means in practical terms isn’t entirely clear — more guidance is yet to come. More to the point, any new federal testing requirements would have to be part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which the do-little Congress has yet to rewrite. (No Child Left Behind, by the way, is all but dead; most states have been granted waivers from major provisions, though testing continues.)

Even so, the official acknowledgment that more testing has resulted in less teaching is welcome. According to an analysis by the American Federation of Teachers, students in two mid-size urban school districts spent up to 50 hours a year, or the equivalent of about two full school weeks, taking mandated tests. Preparing for those tests took twice as long, meaning that teachers lost a lot of instructional time. Tests should advance learning, not detract from it.

What’s so discouraging is that federally mandated tests have not helped to raise achievement or narrow the gap between rich and poor students — the primary goals of the program when a bipartisan Congress agreed to assess students. Basic math and reading skills may have improved ever so slightly in some states among some age groups. But after more than 10 years of test-based accountability, there is no solid evidence that high school students are performing better overall, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, long known as “the nation’s report card.”

In short, the tests have been tested, and they’ve failed. Undoubtedly there is a role for purposeful national assessments to monitor student achievement. But no one should assume that standardized tests are synonymous with good 
education.