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Ed group wants to halt high-stakes testing for evaluations

ASCD says schools and teachers shouldn't be evaluated based on standardized test scores
Sharon Jacobs and Paulita Musgrave from Washington Montessori School in Greensboro, N.C. share the ASCD’s 2015 Legislative Agenda with Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) during ASCD’s Leadership Institute for Legislative Advocacy in Washington, D.C.
Sharon Jacobs and Paulita Musgrave from Washington Montessori School in Greensboro, N.C. share the ASCD’s 2015 Legislative Agenda with Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) during ASCD’s Leadership Institute for Legislative Advocacy in Washington, D.C.

Education advocacy group ASCD is calling for a two-year moratorium on using standardized test results for teacher or school evaluations.

The move represents a growing push nationally to cut back on testing and limit its use as an accountability measure because it may not accurately reflect a teacher’s classroom performance.

“We’re not saying ‘Don’t test,’ but ‘Don’t use tests for that specific set of consequences,’” says David Griffith, ASCD’s director of public policy. “We have very high expectations for students with the new Common Core standards, but we are still operating under the same old system of testing reading and math every year and holding schools accountable.”

As the government begins work on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and educators try to determine what a college and career-ready education truly means, more time is needed to establish accountability measures that make sense, Griffith says. 

ASCD is advocating for a new approach in which testing is just one tool among many in determining whether students are ready for the future.

According to the American Statistical Association, using test scores for evaluation measures typically shows correlation, not causation—meaning that positive or negative effects attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not being measured.

Testing overload

Prior to NCLB, federal law required testing students in reading and math once in elementary school, middle school and high school—a total of six tests. NCLB, passed in 2001, expanded reading and math tests to grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and added three science exams, for a total of 17.

Reauthorizing ESEA

The U.S. Senate’s education committee discussed testing at a January hearing on the reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the committee’s Republican chairman, released a draft reauthorization bill that offers two options for testing.

One would give states plenty of leeway, allowing them to choose to test only in certain grades and combine the results of different formative assessments. States also could evaluate students’ portfolios or come up with a different assessment idea that would not have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

The other option keeps the testing schedule as is for grades 3 through 8 and high school, but allow districts to use their own assessments with state permission.

Either way, using test scores for teacher evaluations would be optional.

At press time, Alexander had stated his intent was to move the reauthorization bill through committee and to the Senate floor by late February.

Many educators and parents say that testing in general, regardless of its use in teacher evaluations, has gone too far. “Standardized testing has exploded across the education landscape in both volume of testing and consequences attached to it,” says Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “Now we’re seeing the beginning of a grassroots revolution resisting high stakes exams.”

In the past few years, some 40 states have sought federal Race to the Top grants or NCLB waivers by adopting teacher and principal evaluation systems based heavily on student test scores. Many educators say that tests designed for one purpose—to measure what a student knows—should not be used for a separate purpose, such as teacher evaluations.

“We’ve taken tools that are useful but frail, and have tried to do more with them than they can bear,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the nonprofit American Enterprise Institute. “Rather than proceed at a slow pace while we sort out the challenge of the tests and getting people comfortable with teacher evaluation systems, we took off to these teacher evaluations at a fast pace because of Race to the Top and NCLB waiver pressures.”

Students should never be tested for the sole purpose of evaluating teachers, says Nancy Waymack, managing director of district policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality. But not all testing is inherently bad, she adds.

“There is a value in knowing how well students are doing,” Waymack says. “Assessments are used for many reasons—to inform instruction, inform parents, compare the performance of students to others in the district, state or nation. Those things are all important.”

Local impact

To cut down on testing in the short term, administrators can limit assessments to the minimum required by the state and federal government.

Testing Stats

  • 52% of teachers say they spend too much time on testing and test prep. The average teacher reports that 30% of their work time is spent on testing-related tasks. Source: NEA
  • Students nationwide take as many as 20 standardized tests per year, and an average of 10 in grades 3 through 8. Source: Center for American Progress
  • Annual state spending on standardized testing rose from $423 million in 2002 to nearly $1.1 billion in 2008. Source: Pew Center on the States

For example, Miami-Dade County Public Schools will administer 24 fewer tests this year, after an internal review called for the elimination of redundant assessments. Districts can also de-emphasize the impacts of tests scores on students’ grades and teacher evaluations, Schaeffer says. They can also allow students to opt out of testing, as some 40,000 did in New York state last spring.

Kim Anderson, senior director of the Center for Advocacy and Outreach at the NEA, recommends superintendents do the following in the long term:

  • When crafting a teacher evaluation system, ask for teachers’ input in determining what will best measure their performance. Also ask for teachers’ input about which student tests best measure learning.
  • Audit the amount of testing going on in the district. Use free online surveys to find out how much time teachers are spending on test prep, how many testing instruments are being used, and how many instructional hours are taken away for testing. Also, ask teachers how that time should be used.
  • Talk to state legislators about how the costs of excessive standardized testing could be put to better use with more after-school programs, school counselors and other resources for students.

There is often flexibility in state and federal mandates, Hess says.

“Personnel evaluation is an incredibly powerful tool, but what matters is not whether you do it but how well you do it,” he says. “Superintendents and principals shouldn’t ignore the law, but these requirements have some leeway, and rather than just proceed blindly it’s important to talk to state officials to figure out how to do it do well.”