School Testing 2016: Same Tests, Different Stakes

Dec 28, 2015
Originally published on January 3, 2016 1:36 pm

It has been a high-stakes year for high-stakes standardized tests.

The debate over renewing the big federal education law turned, in part, on whether annual testing would remain a federal mandate. Republicans initially said no, Democrats said yes. Ultimately the overhaul passed with tests still in place.

On the other hand, this fall President Obama addressed parents on Facebook and released a "Testing Action Plan." He wanted states to cut down "unnecessary testing" that consumes "too much instructional time," creating "undue stress for educators and students."

Meanwhile some parents, notably in New York state, opted out of the tests and made a lot of noise about it. The use of test scores in teacher evaluations was a big bone of contention. And many states dropped out of PARCC and Smarter Balanced, the two Common Core test consortia, in favor of giving their own state tests.

The arguments for annual student testing come down to accountability and equity. If we have accurate data on the academic progress of each and every student, testing advocates say, we'll be able to compare results and highlight gaps, whether between rich and poor kids or across states. That information, presumably, can spur effective, targeted action to improve.

The outstanding question is whether it's possible to reform school testing in a way that gets schools, parents and leaders the data they need, while avoiding the problem the president is talking about: an overemphasis on testing.

And moreover, is that reform likely? Here's what we've learned about testing in the past year, and some predictions of what's to come.

Federally mandated testing is likely to increase, not decrease, next year.

Despite what the president said, the Every Student Succeeds Act still requires states to test at least 95 percent of students each year in reading and math for grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Not only that, a higher percentage of students in special education will have to take the tests. The percentage who are given an alternative test because of cognitive disabilities can't be higher than 1 percent.

The stakes will be lower, though.

Instead of a federally mandated (and widely seen as unrealistic) "100 percent proficiency" goal, each state will set its own targets and decide on its own path to improvement.

The opt-out movement may have some of the wind taken out of its sails.

According to two national polls last year, most Americans don't support the opt-out movement.

The 95 percent testing rule continues to give school leaders a reason to try to hold the ceiling on parental opt-outs, which reached above 50 percent in some schools and districts last year. More important, one political justification for the movement may be fading: ESSA leaves room for states to de-emphasize test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations.

There's been so much test turnover recently, most districts can't track progress.

Chalk this up to an unintended consequence of the Common Core. According to a report this year by the Council of the Great City Schools, a full 65 percent of the biggest school districts in the country saw a change in their big state tests between 2011 and 2015. These changes, the districts said, made it near-impossible to track student achievement over time. And forget about comparing test scores across states: With all the states dropping out of the two Common Core tests, Smarter Balanced and PARCC, we're back to a patchwork of tests and cutoff scores nationwide.

Many people agree there is too much testing, but where to cut back is not clear.

In a national poll last year, two-thirds of the American public agreed there was too much testing in schools. The Council of the Great City Schools study showed students take an average of eight standardized tests per year, often in overlapping subjects and at overlapping times. The director of the CGCS, Michael Casserly, called school testing "redundant and uncoordinated."

The federal government's "testing action plan" promises resources for districts and states to audit and streamline their testing programs.

But how, exactly, to cut back? Four out of 10 districts in the CGCS survey reported having to wait between two and four months before receiving their state test results. That lag makes it near-impossible to make decisions — like grouping students by ability or signing them up for special tutoring — before students pass on to the next grade.

So, if schools want timely data-informed decisionmaking, they'll still need to give their own diagnostic tests. And if districts want to know how they'll do on the state tests, they still need to give their own benchmark and practice tests.

States will turn to new forms of accountability.

Under the ESSA, states create their own accountability formulas. Along with test scores, which are mandatory, these may include graduation rates, measures of student engagement, teacher engagement and school climate (such as attendance or behavior). Some states and districts are also including student projects and surveys that try to measure noncognitive skills.

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It's been a high-stakes year for high-stakes standardized tests taken by students in public schools. The debate over the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, turned in part on whether annual testing would remain a federal mandate. Ultimately, the overhaul passed with the tests still in place. On the other hand, this fall, President Obama released a Testing Action Plan. He's calling for states to cut down unnecessary testing that creates, quote, "undue stress for educators and students." For more on the changes we're likely to see in school testing in 2016, we turned to Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team who's been following these issues very closely. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: And annual tests are still in place. So what's different now?

KAMENETZ: What's really different are the stakes. So instead of the federal government, as it did under No Child Left Behind, mandating that every single child perform at grade level and dictating the sanctions for schools where students are falling behind, now every state can pretty much set up its own plan for improving schools. And at the same time, states are encouraged a little bit to deemphasize test scores in their accountability formulas in favor of multiple measures of student success like behavior, attendance, graduation rates, even student surveys.

MONTAGNE: It sounds a little bit more relaxed, but does that mean testing and test prep is likely to fade?

KAMENETZ: Well, it's hard to say. You know, the Department of Education and the president have been putting out the message that there's too much testing. And they're certainly responded to the public in that way. And they're providing resources in this bill for states to audit and to streamline their testing programs. The problem is that many, many districts have to wait - sometimes for months - before they get their state test scores. So they still need to give their own diagnostic tests in order to get information they can use in the classroom. And as long as test scores remain linked to accountability measures, districts will still want to give benchmark and practice tests and spend time prepping students. And it's all this district-level testing and the prepping that really does seem to pile up and add to the stress on students.

MONTAGNE: And how exactly does the Common Core relate to all of this testing?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, I think a lot of the stress isn't just about the sheer number of tests but also around all the changes in state policies. And the Common Core of course is really central to that. So initially, as a part of the run-up to the Common Core, boosters said that if states adopted the same standards and just a handful of aligned tests that we would simplify testing and get scores that we could compare across states. But that hasn't happened. Instead, there's been a really chaotic process of states picking up and dropping the standards, picking up and dropping various tests. And according to a report this year, 65 percent of the biggest school districts in the country saw a change in their big state tests in the last five years. So not only can we not compare performance across many, many states, the same districts can't compare their own performance to five years ago.

MONTAGNE: And what about the politics of testing? Because this has become quite politicized... Will they opt out movement - continue to grow?

KAMENETZ: You know, even as the opt out movement has been running high, last spring in states like New York national polls reported that a majority of Americans don't support sitting kids out of mandated tests. And one important political change in the new federal law is that states no longer have to make test scores a central part of teacher evaluations. And it was this one issue, the linking of test scores to teacher evaluations, that really mobilized teacher unions in particular against tests. And so I think that even if the new law doesn't cut back on testing, it may have effectively neutralized some of the opposition to testing.

MONTAGNE: Anya, thanks very much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.