In Part I, we discussed why parents, teachers and the public in general think schools do too much testing. After all, the average public school student will take 18 standardized tests and be engaged in 106 hours of state and federal testing before they graduate. It’s time to look at ways we can reform this process.
How did we get here? First, let’s say some form of assessment has always been necessary. For the longest time much of that assessment has been focused in the classroom (e.g. in classroom tests) or on a few independent standardized tests. What’s changed is that in recent decades education legislation has focused more attention on accountability. National efforts like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) brought accountability to the state and local level. NCLB requires states to test in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in grades 10-12.
In North Carolina this led to the development of End-of-Grade (EOG) and End-of-Course (EOC) exams and other subject exams. A new emphasis on meeting federal standard and “adequate yearly progress” brought massive testing to the classroom. A Race to the Top Grant brought the state $400 million and further assessments, including development of an Educator Evaluator Model to determine teacher impact on learning.
If we’re smart, we will learn a few lessons from our predicament. For starters, let’s take a deep breath, gain some perspective and realize that testing is merely one instrument in an assessment toolkit. Testing is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is one way to demonstrate the quality of an education. That’s why excessive testing is a significant problem.
Second, if the current situation teaches us anything, it should underscore the importance of knowing all the strings attached to federal and state grant money and the impact of testing requirements on students and teachers. If policymakers or educators knew all that was involved in fulfilling the obligations of No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, many likely would have been hesitant about accepting the legislation. In addition to being more knowledgeable about content, policymakers should also be aware of how testing requirements interact over time, a factor which too often is basically ignored.
Thankfully, changes are on the horizon. Last October, the state’s Task Force on Summative Assessment began a review of the state’s testing program and will report on their findings and recommendations in July.
Initial drafts show a concern about the number of tests students currently have to take. One possibility might be interim tests in lieu of current EOG and EOC tests. Also recommended is a summative test for one grade each year, as well as pre-assessment in grade 9 and 10 and a college readiness assessment in grade 11. These are major and (some say) controversial changes, which will have advantages and disadvantages. The good thing is a full review of the instruments used to assess student achievement on the academic standards is under way. Significant changes may occur but it is important to realize that recommendations are far from finalized.
Secondly, once we decide about testing, it is important to think long and hard about who does the testing and how. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) currently develops and administers most of the tests given in the public schools. A variety of advantages and disadvantages come with the current arrangement. With tests developed in house, tests can be tailored to specific populations and changes can be made quickly. However, customized or often-changed tests can be hard to compare to tests in other regions or states.
Using DPI as the main test developer also raises concerns about objectivity. The fact is, DPI is not a test agency. Tracking academic progress and establishing teacher value are complicated tasks that require great expertise and a fierce commitment to objectivity.
One partial solution to the current problems is to rely more on standardized tests. Independent standardized tests like Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and Stanford Achievement Tests have been around a long time. Their validity has been established and they have been used successfully in other states. Why can’t North Carolina use these tests as a means to gauge student performance?
A more democratic decision-making process is necessary to redress many of the problems I’ve described. In the past, decisions on testing have been announced with little input from or little concern about students, teachers, parents or schools. Too many times state government has been moving in one direction to enhance accountability, but teachers have been moving in another. This confusion has resulted in a hodge-podge of testing requirements and a landscape littered with stop-and-start efforts.
North Carolina’s budget spends more on K-12 education (about 38 percent) than on any other expenditure. Testing is one way to assess the value that accrues to the individual and societally. Unfortunately, the quest for accountability has resulted in a patchwork of testing requirements with little regard for the interests of students, teachers or parents.
All testing regimens involve trade-offs and shortcomings. There is no perfect system. However, I am confident it is possible to develop a new testing regimen to track academic progress and show teacher value without inflicting the costs associated with the current system. We need a decision making process that is democratic and committed to long-term reform. It’s a task that we cannot begin soon enough.