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Ed. Dept. Gives States Guidance On How to Pare Back, Improve Tests


The Obama administration—which spent its first six years arguably doubling down on high-stakes standardized tests by attaching them to teacher evaluations—has come out with new guidance to help states and districts cut down on the number of tests students take.

The guidance issued Tuesday includes ideas like ensuring tests are of high quality and worth taking, and makes it clear states and districts can use federal funds to support some of that work.

It comes amid a nationwide backlash to testing. At least a dozen states were unable to meet a requirement in the No Child Left Behind Act that 95 percent of students participate in state tests. And the department has put those states on notice that they could risk losing federal funds if they don't come up with a plan to address the problem this school year.

That's raised eyebrows from folks including Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, because the brand-new law that replaced NCLB, the Every Student Succeeds Act, handles test participation differently than NCLB did. ESSA keeps the 95 percent participation requirement in place, but allows states—and states alone—to figure out what to do with schools that fall short of that threshold. (Under NCLB, those schools just automatically failed.)

The new guidance makes it clear that states are still under the old, NCLB rules for most federal programs until ESSA fully kicks in, which won't be until the 2017-18 school year.

At the same time, however, the department has come out with strategies to help states and districts make sure that tests are meaningful, don't take up too much time, and that parents understand what they're used for. (The guidance doesn't come right out and say this, but those steps might help cut down on opt-outs since parents would presumably be less worried about tests if they took up just a small slice of the school year and it was clear how the results are used.)

Specifically, the department wants states and districts to ensure tests are: worth taking (as in not redundant); of high quality (can capture high-order thinking skills); time-limited; provide appropriate accommodations for students in special education and English-language learners; transparent (meaning parents under why kids are taking them and how the data will be used); and just one of multiple measures to get a snapshot of student achievement and school quality.

And the department has made it clear that states can use federal funds to conduct audits of their assessment systems, or help educators better understand how test results can improve student learning. (States could use Title I grants for disadvantaged kids, teacher quality funds, and assessment funding for some of this work.)

What's more, new acting secretary of education, John B. King Jr., has told states that they should rethink teacher-evaluation systems that don't seem to be working. And he's said state tests don't necessarily need to be part of the picture for evaluations to be effective.

UPDATE: The Council of Chief State School Officers gave the testing guidance a thumbs-up. And Chris Minnich, CCSSO's executive director, noted that at least 39 states have already set to work on improving the quality of assessments or reducing unnecessary tests.

"A high-quality assessment is essential to ensuring all students are getting the education they deserve, but those assessments must be meaningful and provide immediate feedback to students, teachers and parents," Minnich said in a statement.

King talks more about the guidance in this video:

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