How should we measure success in school?
How should we measure success in school?

The New York Times produced an article written by Kate Zernike, Obama Administration Calls for Limits on Testing in Schools.  The opening paragraph states:

Faced with mounting and bipartisan opposition to increased and often high-stakes testing in the nation’s public schools, the Obama administration declared Saturday that the push had gone too far, acknowledged its own role in the proliferation of tests, and urged schools to step back and make exams less onerous and more purposeful.

Interesting, it has taken decades amidst widespread criticism from classroom teachers, parents and higher-education experts that our focus on high-stakes testing, or testing in general, has been misguided and does not serve our students well.   Read the story about Dawn Neely-Randall, a fifth-grade teacher from Ohio, written by Quinn Mulhollland, The Case Against Standardized Testing, in Harvard Political Review.  Ms. Neely-Randall realized the absurdity of the demands placed on her students with excessive testing that she spoke out and wrote two essays for the Washington Post.

She is quoted in the HPR article:

I can no longer be part of the problem in my students’ lives, and that’s when I started speaking out.

Teachers, administrators and other educators have been speaking out for a long time about the abusive environment we create in our schools when we test, or prepare students for tests, for upwards of 10-15% of their life in school.  If we include all the formative, summative, benchmark, end-of-course, state and national standardized assessments and international assessments we subject students to it would be considered excessive, unproductive, and maybe abusive, and probably accounts for more like 20% of time spent in school.  Certainly, that’s the conclusion Ms. Neely-Randall came to and felt moved to speak out.  Here is how she expressed her feelings about one of her fifth graders in the HPR article.

“She had a complete meltdown,” Neely-Randall told the HPR. “And I could do nothing to help her, I couldn’t help her with the test. I could just let her take a little break then, but then she was going to run out of time, and she was watching the clock, she knew.

How have we gotten to this point?  I would venture to say that we let the wrong people, mainly politicians, corporations and educational policy types, make all the decisions around what’s best for students.  We should invest in the intelligence and sensitivity of our school administrators and teachers to decide how best to assess student learning.  Assessing student learning should be a local responsibility.  I am not against all standardized testing, but I am against the rampant, out-of-control testing that has been put in the hands of large corporations making large amounts of money on the backs of our students.

In all of these essays and articles, there is little mention of the fact that almost all of the state and national assessments students are subjected to are known to be inadequate measures of what students know and are able to do.  Few of them actually ask students to think critically or creatively about important problems and ideas in the real world.  They are certainly not authentic by most measures.  If  we used Benjamin Bloom’s framework for categorizing educational goals as a lens, most assessments would not be looking at whether students could make connections between ideas, justify their position on ideas, or create new ways of looking at ideas or concepts (see the framework below).


If we want students to take state and national assessments to determine what they know and can do, then we have to design and construct them to be worthy of their time.  We can no longer use as an excuse that more authentic assessments are harder to grade and taken longer to grade.  Our students deserve better.  We are capable of building the most advanced fighter jet in the world, the F-35, at a cost of over $200 million per jet.  You mean to tell me that we can’t create an authentic assessment for students to take that measures what they KNOW  and CAN DO.  The “can do” is very important.  Our assessments should have a performance component that allows students to demonstrate their understanding in more ways than with paper and pencil.

The Obama Administration is calling for a change in policy that would result in a student spending no more than 2% of his or her classroom time on testing.  I hope they have pulled out a calculator and worked out the math.  Based on 180 school days, 2% of classroom time (not including lunch and recess) would be about 21 hours of testing (based on a 7 hour school day).  At an average of 6 hours of school per day (not including an hour spent at lunch and recess) that would be about 3.5 days of testing.  Is the 2% they reference all testing?  Public schools in Atlanta that I know spend about 12-15 days on preparing and administering high-stakes tests to students.  That doesn’t include all the other testing that is mandated by districts or school leaders.  Do we have bold and courageous leaders in our schools that are prepared to cut the testing environment by about 200%?  Even if they are bold and courageous, do they have the expertise and authority to figure out a better way to design and implement a more productive assessment environment in their schools?  I think they do if they trust and use the wisdom of teachers in the design process.

Arnie Duncan, the architect of a whole new effort these past eight years to increase our emphasis and reliance on high-stakes tests, is quoted in the New York Times article as saying:

“I still have no question that we need to check at least once a year to make sure our kids are on track or identify areas where they need support,” said Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, who has announced that he will leave office in December.

My questions are these: on track for what purpose and what end, and support on what aspects of their learning?  Again, most of these assessments, whether state or federally orchestrated, are insufficient and inadequate instruments to measure these two outcomes.  First, most districts and schools do not receive the results of the testing early enough to act on what students know or do not know.  In addition, the assessments cannot be disaggregated sufficiently to provide teachers and administrators with clarity about whether learning targets were mastered.  Second, schools promote students to the next grade before the results are in.  So if a students goes to the next grade not having mastered all the learning, they aren’t held back in most cases.  Take this one sobering statistic as an indication:

The literacy rates among fourth grade students in America are sobering. Sixty six percent of all U.S. fourth graders scored “below proficient” on the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading test, meaning that they are not reading at grade level.1  Even more alarming is the fact that among students from low-income backgrounds, 80 percent score below grade level in reading.  (First Look: 2013 Mathematics and Reading, National Assessment of Education Progress at Grades 4 and 8 (click here))

Nothing new in this report!  Compared to other countries, we fail in math, science, and reading.

The conversation shouldn’t be about high-stakes tests, how much time students are being assessed, and whether the assessments are the right ones.  We should be talking about why 66% of all US 4th grade students are below proficient readers and figure out what to do.  If 66% of 4th graders can read effectively, how can we expect them to finish high school (many aren’t), go on to college, and be informed citizens.  Again, we solve lots of other problems that are just as complex like figuring out that there is water on Mars.  How much did we invest to solve that riddle?  You can bet that all the folks that contributed to solving that problem can read at grade level.

What if we invested billions of dollars into helping ALL students in school read at grade level.  Take a look at this fact from the Harvard Political Review article:

The law (NCLB) has come with a hefty price tag for taxpayers. A 2012 study by the Brookings Institution determined that states spend $1.7 billion per year on testing, an enormous increase over the $423 million states spent in 2001 before NCLB, according to the Pew Center on the States. All of this money has fueled a booming testing industry, with companies like Pearson racking up billions in sales. A POLITICO investigation published on February 10, 2015 revealed that Pearson receives tens of millions in taxpayer dollars even though there is “little proof its products and services are effective.”

Again, what if 1.7 billion dollars went into improving reading programs in all schools instead of into the corporate pockets of companies like Pearson?  Maybe all students would learn to read at grade level.

Arnie Duncan, I think its a little late for this quote to impact our direction:

“It’s important that we’re all honest with ourselves,” he continued. “At the federal, state and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation. We can and will work with states, districts and educators to help solve it.”

Duncan is leaving office and Obama is less than effective working with Congress to initiate any meaningful change.  Let’s face it, our government has shown a lack of leadership with regard to understanding the assessment landscape in school and designing effective programs to impact improvement in student learning.  This article highlights the disasters that have fallen on the backs of schools, administrators, teachers and students.   Obama and Congress have been unsuccessful in orchestrating a clear direction for America as illustrated in this quote from the article.

“But as the Obama administration pushed testing as an incentive for states to win more federal money in the Race for the Top program, it was bedeviled by an unlikely left-right alliance. Conservatives argued that the standards and tests were federal overreach — some called them a federal takeover — and called on parents and local school committees to resist what they called a “one size fits all” approach to teaching.”

It’s clear to me that politicians, educational policy makers, and corporations whose bottom line depends on selling tests should not be the visionaries behind a new direction in assessment.  Take this quote from the New York Times article:

But it (Obama Administration) also said that tests should be “just one of multiple measures” of student achievement, and that “no single assessment should ever be the sole factor in making an educational decision about a student, an educator or a school.”

And  yet, through Race-to-the-Top, the Obama Administration pushed states to use a single assessment, the state’s high-stakes test, as one of the main indicators to measure teacher effectiveness.  In the face of criticism from all types of educators, the administration persevered even though many high-stakes assessments are flawed and “no single assessment should ever be the sole factor in making an educational decision.”

We have a long road to climb and we shouldn’t invest in our government as the guide.  We need to put more authority and responsibility in the hands of schools, while also training principals and teachers to be excellent practitioners of all types of assessment.

Check other blog posts by the Center for Teaching on teacher supervision and evaluation and assessment.