Student testing: Deciding when enough is enough

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U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan | AP file

Do students take too many tests?

Given the complaints about a high-stakes testing culture in classrooms, some states are reviewing the quality and quantity of the tests their students take. Congress is getting into the act, too.

On Wednesday, the Senate’s education committee is set to take up the issue of whether federally mandated annual testing should remain a requirement under the No Child Left Behind law. Lawmakers are considering the reauthorization of the bipartisan education measure that President George W. Bush signed into law in 2002.

“Of course we should be asking the question: Are there too many tests?” says the committee chairman, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Five things to know about testing in U.S. schools:



The Bush-era law requires that states test students in grades three to eight in reading and math, and once again in these subjects in high school.

The tests are used to measure student progress. Schools that don’t show improvement face consequences. President Barack Obama has allowed states to avoid some requirements by requesting waivers, but he has kept annual testing in place.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said the federal requirement opened the door for more testing, with some districts conducting interim tests to make sure their students are on track for the federally mandated assessments.



Many states and districts require additional testing beyond the federally mandated exams. A Center for American Progress snapshot of 14 districts in seven states found that students take as many as 20 standardized assessments annually and an average of 10 tests in grades three to eight. The group said these students spend on average 1.6 percent of instructional time or less taking tests.

Preliminary research by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban districts, found that students take an average of 113 standardized tests between pre-K and 12th grade. It said testing time for 11th graders was as high as 27 days, or 15 percent of the school year, in one district and that didn’t count Advanced Placement, career and technical education course and college entrance exams.

Other tests measure things such as English language proficiency, eligibility for gifted and talented programs, whether students have met high school graduation requirements or are ready for kindergarten.

It’s not just the actual test-taking that’s frustrating some parents and educators. It’s also the hours students spend preparing — and worrying.

“In some grades, it’s astonishing when you lay it all on top of each other,” said Chancellor Kaya Henderson of the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Henderson has appointed a committee to review testing in her district, a move also taking place in several states.

John White, the Louisiana state superintendent, told reporters that business forces are at play, with the testing industry selling districts tests that aren’t necessarily needed.



Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the education committee’s top Democrat, agree there’s too much testing. But they also are among the backers of the annual federal testing requirement, saying an annual measurement is critical to ensure that low-income or minority students and those with disabilities aren’t lost in the system.

“To put our heads in the sand and just hope, that’s not fair to the kids. It’s simply not fair,” Duncan said.

Margaret Spellings, education secretary under Bush, said the annual testing mandate is the “holy grail” of education reform. This federal role in education is backed by civil rights and business groups.”

“If the testing is sound and accurate and valid and reliable and aligned, all those wonky words, then teaching to the test is not necessarily a bad thing,” Spellings said.

Alexander says he’s open to listening to all sides. But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an education committee member, says districts should determine how students are tested. He wants to repeal the law and says many students have been “failed by the current system.”

The National Education Association, a teachers union, backs a federal mandate that would require the testing just once in elementary, middle and high school.



This spring, millions of students in about 30 states are expected to take new Common Core-based assessments that are replacing other state ones. The standards, the result of a states-led effort backed by governors, spell out what skills students should master in each grade and are designed to develop critical thinking skills.

The tests were developed by two different groups of states that pooled resources and expertise. A $360 million federal grant helped fund the work.

The tests are computer based and designed to the Common Core standards. Just as the standards have been controversial, so have the assessments — and some states have opted out of them.

Educators expect student test scores to drop and cause angst. But proponents say they are a better measure of what students actually know and are better aligned to what they learn in class.

About 5.2 million students participated in field tests of the new assessments, with few technology-related snags. But it’s expected that some schools will not have the Internet capability to administer the tests by computer and will need to do so using old-fashioned paper and pencil, according to the Government Accountability Office.



The Obama administration views teacher evaluations with teeth as in important way to improve schools. It has given incentives to states to develop such evaluation systems, including making them a requirement to get a waiver to No Child Left Behind.

In 2009, 35 states and the District of Columbia did not require teacher evaluations to include measures of student learning, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. But by last year, that dropped to nine states.

That’s put added pressure on teachers — and at the same time classroom expectations are changing because of Common Core.

Last fall, Duncan said states can apply for extra time before they use student test scores to judge educators’ performance.


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