Shirley Goh
Panel of education officials and experts discusses standardized testing in states.

As states and districts debate which standardized tests are best for students, they are evaluating many factors, including curriculum alignment, the amount of time the assessments take, and how soon the results come in.

During an Education Writers Association conference in Boston this month, analysts and education leaders explored how students, teachers, and school systems are adjusting to changes in testing, and probed the challenges in making sense of this complex topic. 

For starters, how much standardized testing really goes on in schools today? Who requires it? What does it tell us? Michael Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools shared the results of a unique “inventory” report his organization conducted that sheds light on these and other questions.

The study finds that the average student in a big-city school system takes about 112 mandatory tests between pre-kindergarten and 12th grade, with approximately eight each year.

The report, released last October by the Council of Great City Schools, was based on a survey and analysis of 66 member districts, including those in Boston, the District of Columbia, New York City, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. The report listed all assessments the districts administer in an attempt to see whether some test students “too much.” It includes those administered to fulfill requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, as well as many other mandatory assessments that originate at the state and local levels. Two key goals of the study were to compare and improve testing practices in urban systems.

“Probably the thing of greatest interest was the amount of time required to take the tests,” Casserly said during the EWA panel on testing. On average, he said, the assessments take up about 4.2 days in a 180-day school year, or 2.3 percent of school time.

“There was no correlation between the amount of testing time and whether kids did any better in reading and math,” Casserly noted.

The report found many tests are redundant and are not aligned with standards or with each other, he said. In addition, results are often not reported soon enough to inform instruction.

“By the time test results get back to teachers in the classroom,” Casserly said, “it’s old news and they can’t really do anything about it.”

The Massachusetts Experience

Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of Massachusetts’ public schools, also participated in the EWA discussion on testing. He said his state has seen steady gains over time for all students – including low-income children and students of color – on tests administered through the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, known as MCAS. Unlike California, which recently suspended its high school exit exam, Massachusetts requires all students to show proficiency in math and English language arts to graduate.

“I argue it has prompted schools to be more diligent about their program of instruction and attending to students they might have turned their back on had this requirement not been in place,” Chester said.

Still, like many states, he said Massachusetts has more work to do in preparing students for college and careers. The state this year gave districts the option of choosing between the MCAS or PARCC, a test created through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of states that includes Massachusetts. Some other states, including California, are part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which has created a similar test pegged to the Common Core State Standards.

“We’re in a nation where what state you grow up in is less important,” Chester said. “Are we testing the right stuff?”

Next year, Chester said, Massachusetts plans to roll out a revised assessment, dubbed MCAS 2.0, that will incorporate some test items from PARCC. The action comes as many states that previously were on track to use PARCC or Smarter Balanced have shifted gears.

Linda Hanson, a K-5 literacy coach in the Arlington, Mass. school district and the president of the Arlington teachers’ union, said she helped facilitate focus groups with parents and teachers about both the MCAS and PARCC recently to discuss concerns and expectations. Concerns she heard included the importance of building students’ keyboarding skills and addressing the stress on students associated with PARCC’s testing time limits. MCAS and Smarter Balanced, on the other hand, are untimed tests.

Other concerns included the grade-appropriateness of questions, essay writing requirements, accommodations for special-needs students, and the amount of time spent testing, Hanson said at the EWA event.

“An overriding concern was the increase in the number of testing sessions overall,” she said, explaining that the district spent about two hours a day for five weeks administering PARCC assessments.

‘Losing Evidence’

Andrew Ho, who specializes in testing issues at Harvard University, stressed the importance of looking at student progress and achievement gaps over time, in his remarks at the Boston panel. He said that focusing solely on a percent proficient in a single year does not provide adequate context to understand trends, such as growth or decline in specific areas or among subgroups of students.

When states switch from one test to another, they can’t keep track of trend data, Ho said.

“We’re losing any sense of history of where we were and how much progress we’ve made,” he said.

Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools agreed, saying many states lost valuable data about the effectiveness of School Improvement Grants when they switched tests.

“The more states change tests,” he said, “the more you’re losing evidence about whether or not particular reforms are working on the ground.”

Hanson said tests should be as specific as possible to inform instruction, so teachers can determine what students need more of, who needs to be challenged more, and what kinds of remediation are necessary.

Many states, Ho said, don’t do a good job of using tests to adapt their instruction.

“Tests are tools of policy,” he said. “But they should also be tools of pedagogy.”

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  1. SD Parent 1 year ago1 year ago

    Under pressure from the local teachers' union, San Diego Unified recently opted to abolish all standardized testing except that mandated by the state and federal governments. The only metric they have left is the SBAC, which even Michael Kirst claims won't be a valid assessment for several years (and which primarily tests younger students, being administered only twice after 5th grade). So exactly how does a district that essentially abandons standardized testing measure whether there is … Read More

    Under pressure from the local teachers’ union, San Diego Unified recently opted to abolish all standardized testing except that mandated by the state and federal governments. The only metric they have left is the SBAC, which even Michael Kirst claims won’t be a valid assessment for several years (and which primarily tests younger students, being administered only twice after 5th grade).

    So exactly how does a district that essentially abandons standardized testing measure whether there is an achievement gap, particularly when the schools across the district have radically different demographics? So much for the “A” in LCAP and the entire premise behind LCFF…

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 1 year ago1 year ago

      SD Parent: A couple of points: SBAC is administered grades 3-8 and grade 11; the state board will likely require new science assessments, when they are designed in several years, to be one of the state metrics for accountability. As of this year, with the second year of testing, there will be a way to measure growth in SBAC test scores. And by 2017-18, when the federal and state accountability systems kick in, there will be three … Read More

      SD Parent:
      A couple of points: SBAC is administered grades 3-8 and grade 11; the state board will likely require new science assessments, when they are designed in several years, to be one of the state metrics for accountability.

      As of this year, with the second year of testing, there will be a way to measure growth in SBAC test scores. And by 2017-18, when the federal and state accountability systems kick in, there will be three years of the test for accountability purposes. As retired standardized testing publisher Doug McRae and others have pointed out, only when teachers have been instructed in the new standards and students have adequate textbooks, can the results of tests be considered truly valid. However, I have not heard state board members express a lack of confidence in using the SBAC test results in the new accountability system.

  2. navigio 1 year ago1 year ago

    '“There was no correlation between the amount of testing time and whether kids did any better in reading and math,” Casserly noted.' 'I argue it has prompted schools to be more diligent about their program of instruction and attending to students they might have turned their back on had this requirement not been in place,” Chester said.' 'When states switch from one test to another, they can’t keep track of trend data, Ho said.' In other words, … Read More

    ‘“There was no correlation between the amount of testing time and whether kids did any better in reading and math,” Casserly noted.’
    ‘I argue it has prompted schools to be more diligent about their program of instruction and attending to students they might have turned their back on had this requirement not been in place,” Chester said.’

    ‘When states switch from one test to another, they can’t keep track of trend data, Ho said.’

    In other words, tests don’t help students directly, they just keep the pressure on schools, who would otherwise ignore those students. And switching to new tests (and standards) has no pedagogical value. Rather its goal is nothing more than to make sure the pressure on school districts doesn’t have time time to diminish due to the complacency of familiarity.

    Nice.

    And these are our education ‘experts’.

    Replies

    • Doug McRae 1 year ago1 year ago

      Good post, Theresa, reflecting the realities for large scale K-12 tests for US policy makers and policy influencers. Navigio -- Yes, large scale tests administered at the end of the school year under heavy test security conditions do cause pressure, for students, for teachers, for school administrators. The reality is such tests are meant to be used for accountability purposes, and that describing such tests as tests for instructional purposes (as contrasted to measuring the results … Read More

      Good post, Theresa, reflecting the realities for large scale K-12 tests for US policy makers and policy influencers.

      Navigio — Yes, large scale tests administered at the end of the school year under heavy test security conditions do cause pressure, for students, for teachers, for school administrators. The reality is such tests are meant to be used for accountability purposes, and that describing such tests as tests for instructional purposes (as contrasted to measuring the results of instruction) is simply a Trojan Horse in the constant tension between anti-accountability and pro-accountability views. The reality is that true accountability needs an external dimension, that self-accountability [as implied by “local control” accountability rhetoric] does not reflect reality for not only the K-12 education endeavor in the US but also for many other societal endeavors. Do we allow students to grade themselves? No, grading is the province of teachers and the result is pressure on the students. Do we allow employees to evaluate themselves and set their own compensation? No, employee evaluation and compensation decisions require judgments by managers and others, and result in pressure on employees. Large scale K-12 tests do result in pressure on students (tho frequently not individual student high stakes pressure) as well as teachers (tho again usually not individual teacher high stakes pressure) and school administrators (who probably feel the pressure of large scale tests the most). In this larger context, those pressures are healthy pressures and are similar to pressures in other settings. [Aside: Even the Warriors feel the pressure of living up to their 73-9 regular season record tonight. At least I hope they do! (grin)] The rhetoric we hear that large scale K-12 tests are just mechanisms to “test and punish” or “shame and blame” is nothing more than one-sided anti-accountability rhetoric; accountability data for K-12 schools allows for rewards and positive feedbacks for successes as much if not more than identification of areas that need improvement. That’s just reality. The test scores are the messages, but some folks want to kill the messenger rather than working with the reality of the messages. No, Navigio, the quotes in the post for which you express cynicism simply reflect reality, not expressions of reality deserving derision.

  3. Manuel 1 year ago1 year ago

    "The report found many tests are redundant and are not aligned with standards or with each other, he said. In addition, results are often not reported soon enough to inform instruction." Who knew? :-) I'd like to add that based on the data presented in the CST Technical Reports, I am dubious that the tests even "stack and rank" students they way "the experts" claim they do. I am waiting for the Technical Report for the 2015 CAASPP … Read More

    “The report found many tests are redundant and are not aligned with standards or with each other, he said. In addition, results are often not reported soon enough to inform instruction.”

    Who knew? 🙂

    I’d like to add that based on the data presented in the CST Technical Reports, I am dubious that the tests even “stack and rank” students they way “the experts” claim they do.

    I am waiting for the Technical Report for the 2015 CAASPP administration. But it is already late by at least a month (if it was to be published following a timetable similar to the CST’s). I am starting to think that there won’t be any report. Do any of you, dear reader, know anything about it? CDE has yet to answer my email of nearly a month ago asking about it.