Federal Action and Inaction Produce Testing Deluge

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, May 2012

Students and teachers across the country face a deluge of increased testing due to U.S. Department of Education (DOE) actions to build on No Child Left Behind and Congress’s failure to reauthorize the law. To earn “waivers” from Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), win Race to the Top grants, and receive Teacher Improvement Program grants, the federal government is requiring states to use standardized test scores as “a significant part” of all teacher evaluations. Meanwhile, in an effort to boost scores, many districts are imposing three to ten “interim” or “benchmark” standardized tests per year as well as requiring even more frequent “formative” assessments.

Most states currently test annually in grades three to eight and once in high school in reading and math, plus three grades in science, as No Child Left Behind mandates. To win NCLB waivers or RTTT, however, states must agree to evaluate all teachers in all subjects and grades. In some states that means mandating additional tests. In others “uncovered” teachers will be judged by scores in a subject or grade they do not teach, an equally flawed approach. Nyack, New York, parent activists, for example, say dozens of new tests will be imposed at costs in the millions of dollars. Some states are passing the costs along to districts.  For example, Massachusetts expects districts to develop or purchase assessments in subjects and grades not tested by the state. 

The often poorly constructed interim and fake “formative” tests are intended to show how students are likely to do on the NCLB-mandated tests and therefore steer teaching closer to test preparation. Even kindergarteners are not immune from testing pressure, as this Rethinking Schools story from Milwaukee shows. True formative assessments are under a teacher’s control, integrated into the classroom curriculum. Research shows they have strong benefits for students.

The Obama Administration has been able to carry out its program in large part because Congress has not reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), of which NCLB is the current version. It was due for reauthorization in 2007, but efforts that year fell apart. Only in 2011 did Congress begin to move again.

The House and Senate education committees each drafted and approved its own bill earlier this year. However, most observers conclude that neither is likely to be voted on by the full House or Senate. Even if they were, the differences on many issues are too great to be reconciled. Thus, they expect it will be 2013 or even 2014 before Congress takes up ESEA/NCLB again.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee legislation would maintain current testing mandates, end Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, and change school “turnaround” requirements. It would not mandate that states adopt teacher evaluation programs. Its turnaround requirements combine the Department of Education’s unproven Race to the Top mandates with research-backed steps that reflect proposals by the FairTest-chaired Forum on Educational Accountability. Turnaround actions would only apply to five percent of schools. Many large education groups support the HELP bill because it ends AYP. Most civil rights groups oppose it as weakening the federal role in education and stepping back from ensuring the educational opportunities of low-income and minority-group children. Business groups oppose the end of AYP.

The House Education Committee approved a series of reauthorization bills. One would maintain most existing test requirements but drop the mandate for periodic science exams. It would also end AYP and would leave it up to the states to decide when and how to intervene in low-performing schools. Another bill would require states to implement teacher evaluation systems that include student test scores as a “significant part” of the evaluation. Education groups are split on the House bills, while civil rights and business groups oppose them on grounds similar to their objections to the HELP bills.

FairTest joins FEA in calling on Congress to reduce the amount of mandated testing and not mandate that states create teacher evaluation systems. To support such positive actions, reformers can use the upcoming elections to raise issues about testing. You can also sign the national Resolution on High-Stakes Testing. http://timeoutfromtesting.org/nationalresolution/.