Education Matters: Testing 1–2–3

Published on: December 30, 2013


In late August, the results of two national surveys were released, showing very different perspectives on standardized testing in public schools.

One, a Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup poll, determined that support for standardized testing in schools is waning, with fewer than 25% of respondents saying that increased testing is improving public schools. The poll also found less support for using test results as a component in teacher evaluations. Last year, 52% of respondents favored using test scores to evaluate teachers. This year, that number dropped to 41%.

In contrast, another poll on testing released the same week, had different results, perhaps because the questions were framed differently. According to an article about the polls by Education Week, before answering questions, respondents in PDK/Gallup poll were told there had been a significant increase in testing. Yet a poll conducted by the Associated Press (AP) and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago asked parents how important it is to regularly assess students, with no prior mention of  increased  testing.

In that poll, 74% of respondents said assessments were very important in assessing both student and school performance. Sixty-one percent of parents said their children receive the right amount of standardized tests; 26% said their children are overtested. Sixty percent of the AP/University of Chicago poll respondents said test scores should be used as a component of teacher evaluations. Fifty-eight percent of respondents in the PDK/Gallup poll on testing said they should not.

The efficacy, frequency and appropriate use of testing is in the eye of the beholder.

I've come to view the testing conundrum the way I view the tangled mess of ear buds that sit in a drawer near my family's iPod/phone docking station. Achieving clarity requires unraveling a mess of interconnected wires. It can be done, but it requires patience, singularity of purpose and an understanding of where each wire leads.

This won't be the first time I write about testing. Today I'll attempt to untangle the knots and explain some of the issues surround standardized testing and their kinfolk — academic standards.

Has the amount of standardized testing increased?


Maybe, like me, you remember standardized testing as an annual event, like watching The Wizard of Oz on television. You'd sit at your desk, seemingly for hours, with an array of No. 2 pencils at the ready, trying not to sneeze, cough or laugh. I don't remember ever receiving test results or hearing my mother or my teacher mention anything about them.

The modern incarnation of standardized testing has its roots in the No Child Left Behind legislation, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002. This legislation required states to adopt academic standards for grades 3-12 (previously this was optional) and to conduct annual standardized tests to determine whether students were meeting grade-level standard.

Fast forward to 2009, the Obama Administration and the establishment of Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion U.S. Department of Education contest to promote education reform. State standardized test results — used as a measure to evaluate student achievement and teacher, school and state performance — became an important factor in awarding federal funding.

Race to the Top has generated a lot of controversy, including that some states reduced the rigor of their standardized tests to increase the success rate. Washington D.C. public schools, under Chancellor Michelle Rhee (an outspoken school reform advocate) were alleged to have cheated on test results, erasing wrong answers in favor of right ones. There have been allegations of test cheating in 37 states. Washington State school officials play a passive role in monitoring test practices.

Diane Ravitch is one of the most prominent critics of current education reform efforts. She is a former Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush, who, in that capacity, led the creation of voluntary state and national academic standards. In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Ravitch explains why she reversed her position on reform. She's currently on tour with her latest book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, and will appear at University of Washington's Kane Hall on September 26 at 7:30 p.m.

Interesting factoid for education geeks like me: Horace Mann, a Massachusetts legislator and proponent of school accountability, is the godfather of the school reform/testing movement, which began in 1837, after he went on a fact-finding trip abroad and decided that U.S. schools were inferior to Prussia's. You can read about the political fight that ensured here. It sounds eerily familiar to what we face today.

What are the benefits and challenges of standardized tests?

Standardized tests provide a consistent, objective means of evaluating a broad range of students on the same set of academic standards, measured in the same way.

But, in a best-case scenario, they are just one piece of the puzzle of student achievement and teacher effectiveness.

At Seattle's Town Hall last week, a panel of experts along with an audience of mostly teachers discussed the use of standardized testing in public schools.

Panelist Wayne Au, of the University of Washington, suggested that the tests may be geared toward successful outcomes for students from particular racial and socio-economic backgrounds. He and other panelists wondered: Are standardized tests measuring aptitude, achievement or access to education?

Panelist Sandra Brettler, a National Board Certified Teacher at Thornton Creek Elementary School, wants tests results to be used first and foremost to guide classroom instruction.

The controversial computer-adaptive MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) test was designed to do just that — offering teachers up to three snapshots per year of how their students were doing and personalizing the test by increasing difficulty based on correct answers. Among the criticisms of the MAP were that teachers were not consistently trained in how to evaluate the test results and that the questions did not match grade-level curriculum. And parents received little guidance in how to interpret test results.

Critics also say that an increase in testing has led to a narrowing of classroom instruction, forcing teachers to "teach to the test."

Test cost-benefit analysis

Critics of standardized tests cite the loss of classroom instruction time during testing "windows," which can last several weeks. Not only does this affect teachers and students being tested, but it also impacts access to the school library, where tests are often administered.

A report issued last year  by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution determined that states spend a combined total of $1.7 billion on testing, which translates to a quarter of 1 percent of total K-12 education spending in the U.S.

According to the Town Hall panelists, Washington spends $80 million annually on testing. Currently the Washington State legislature is working to fulfill its "paramount duty" to fully fund basic education, as mandated  by the state Supreme Court in January 2012. The current education budget is $15 billion.

Testing and teacher evaluation

This is perhaps the most highly charged component of the testing debate and is exacerbated by the implementation of the new, rigorous Common Core State Standards, which will be accompanied by a new, rigorous standardized assessment. Results of Common Core assessments released in New York this summer showed an across-the-board drop in student achievement.

The Common Core stresses critical thinking and, in some cases, sets a higher bar for student achievement than previous state academic standards. Some teachers fear they will be penalized if their students' test scores go down.

There's more to say on teacher evaluations, student growth and how performance vs. seniority impacts hiring, firing and teacher pay, and I'll touch on those in future columns.

What can we agree on?

  • Standardized assessments are a useful, non-subjective means of assessing whether or not students have met grade-level academic standards.
  • Every student deserves an excellent teacher. However, teachers are only one component in achieving academic success.
  • Poverty and other struggles can impact student success. Schools have limited means to address these important problems, especially with waning resources.
  • Test results need to be used in a meaningful way to inform classroom instruction.
  • Students deserve an academically rigorous education that will prepare them for college, career and economic stability
  • Everything in moderation?

The national debate on public education can't be reduced to a single blog post. But I want to leave you with a few nuggets:

Finland has been much touted for its international academic standing and for that fact that teachers are highly trained and highly respected, schools do not rely on standardized tests, and the homework load is much less than in the U.S.

Much of the country's success stems from a deliberate 40-year strategy to improve academic outcomes.

Teacher and administrator perspective and experience have a role to play in assessing the efficacy of education policies.

Some view Common Core as a golden opportunity to allow teachers to drive instruction and raise the bar, and prospects for lifelong success, for all students.

The devil is in the details.


Cheat sheet

Achievement gap: Also known as the opportunity gap,  this is the disparity in student achievement among different racial groups.

High-stakes testing: Tests with important consequence for the test-taker (such as end-of-course exams required to receive a high school diploma) and, increasingly, teachers, principals, schools, school districts and states, who are evaluated based on student growth measured by state standardized tests.

McCleary decision: The January 2012 ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court upholding the state's Constitutional requirement to fully fund basic education.

Smarter Balanced Assessment: The Common Core-aligned state standardized test that will be implemented in Washington State during the 2014-2015 school year, replacing the MSP (Measurements of Student Progress).

Education News Briefs

Speaking of testing: Seattle Public Schools has announced that applications for eligibility testing for academic acceleration programs for the 2014-2015 school year are due October 3. Forms can be obtained at schools, at the John Stanford Center and on the District's website.

Boundary conditions: Community meetings on Seattle's proposed new school assignment boundaries begin this week. Here's the meeting schedule.

More sleep for teens? The Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) seeks community input on later secondary school start times. You can make your views known here.

More money for schools? Washington State's Economic and Revenue Forecast Council released its quarterly revenue projections. which project an increase of $345 million for the 2013-15 biennium. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn wants to see that money go towards funding education.

Preschool for all approved: The Seattle City Council has approved legislation to establish a work plan to make affordable, high-quality preschool affordable for all 3 and 4-year-old Seattle children.  A gap analysis will be performed to determine how many children are currently not enrolled in preschool. This will be followed by an action plan to design and phase-in the program.

New charter captain: Joshua Halsey has been named executive director of the nine-member Washington State Charter School Commission.  Halsey previously worked at the Puget Sound Educational Services District, where he led development of the innovative South King County STEM network.

Absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder: A recent report from the group Attendance Matters says that 7.5 million students in the U.S. miss nearly a month of school each year.  States are working together to curb absenteeism.

Alison Krupnick is ParentMap's Education Editor and a former world-traveling diplomat turned minivan-driving mom and writer. She chronicled her transformation in her book Ruminations from the Minivan, Musings from a World Grown Large, then Small. Her writing has been published in Harvard Review; Brain, Child; Seattle magazine and a variety of news and trade publications and literary journals and anthologies. You can find more of her education reporting on and enjoy sweet and savory moments and recipes on her blog Slice of Mid-Life. Have an education question or suggestion? Let her know!

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