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New Federal Legislation Introduced to Reduce Mandated Tests

By guest blogger Lauren Camera. Cross-posted from Politics K-12.

Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., is the latest member of Congress to introduce a bill that would significantly shrink the federal footprint on standardized testing.

The Tackling Excessive Standardized Testing (TEST) Act, introduced Thursday with the backing of the American Federation of Teachers, would allow states to choose an alternative testing regimen for students in grades 3 through 8.

Under Israel's testing bill:

  • Students in grades 3 through 8 would only be required to take one test per year: English/Language Arts, or ELA, in grades 3, 5, and 7, and math in grades 4, 6, and 8.
  • Schools that rank in the top 15 percent in the state on all of the ELA or math tests would move to a four-year testing cycle, in which ELA would be tested in grades 3 and 7, and math in grades 4 and 8. The U.S. Department of Education would develop an alternative measure that allows schools to move to the four-year testing cycle if they show a certain level of progress.
  • Under current law, students with limited English proficiency can take mandated tests in their own language for the first three years they are enrolled in U.S. schools, but no matter when they entered the U.S. school system, the score is counted in measures of school accountability. This bill would delay the use of those test results by one year.

The America Federation of Teachers is throwing its support behind the bill.

"Testing not only is soaking up too much time and narrowing the curriculum, but is less and less a measure of what kids need to know and be able to do," said AFT president Randi Weingarten in a statement. "Standardized tests these days are driving teaching and learning, rather than giving teachers and parents useful data and feedback to help children."

Weingarten said the measure to reduce testing also "points to the need to build a new accountability system that uses testing as a way to inform instruction."

Back in May, the National Education Association touted a similar testing bill from Reps. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. That measure would require states to assess their students only in certain grade spans instead of testing students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. That would reduce the number of federally mandated standardized tests from 14 to six.

Both bills face tough political odds.

Both Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat, support maintaining the requirement to annually test students because it shows how poor and minority students fare relative to their peers. Indeed, Kline kept the testing schedule in his ESEA renewal bill, which passed the House, and so did Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, in his dueling reauthorization proposal. The Senate legislation was approved in committee, but has yet to advance to the floor.

Something to note: We're starting to hear U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talk a lot about the burden of overtesting. Most recently, during his August announcement that waiver states can delay using student test scores in teacher evaluations, Duncan talked about teachers' widespread complaints that tests "focus too much on basic skills," and that giving tests, and preparing for them, consumes too much time.

Here's an excerpt from that speech:

"... in many places, the sheer quantity of testing--and test prep--has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction. Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can't afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we'll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing."

My colleague, Catherine Gewertz over at Curriculum Matters, astutely noted that Duncan said in that speech that the department "wants to be part of the solution" to the problems of bad tests and over-testing, but hasn't outlined specifics of how he or the department plan to help.

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