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Too Much Testing in U.S. Schools: The Department of Education's 'Mea Culpa'

A new report from the Council of the Great City Schools has done what seemingly nothing or no one has yet been able to do: Convince the current administration that the rampant over-testing in U.S. schools is proving harmful for the quality of education that our students receive.

The report found that students take, on average, more than 112 standardized tests between pre-K and grade 12, with the average student taking about eight standardized tests per year. Some are intended to "fulfill federal requirements under No Child Left Behind, NCLB waivers, or Race to the Top (RTT), while many others originate at the state and local levels. Others were optional." 

Now the administration is signaling that they see the error of their and their predecessors' ways.  Calling for a two percent cap on the amount of classroom time that is spent on testing, and a host of other proposals, the administration's mea culpa is an unexpected demonstration of what can occur when the facts are laid bare for all to see. How much is actually done to reverse the over-testing trend will be decided by the actions of incoming acting Secretary of Education John King.

The tone of flexibility in the Department's announcement is new and welcome, as is its recognition that the Department may share some culpability in the national revolt against testing.  Its call for fewer and higher quality assessments is on target, as is its willingness to help the states come up with more sensible approaches.

What I don't see in the administration's proposals is understanding that the vast proliferation of indiscriminate testing with cheap, low quality tests is the direct result of federal education policies beginning with No Child Left Behind and continuing with Race to the Top and the current waiver regime.  I offer you one phrase in the Department's announcement in evidence of this proposition:  "The Department will work with states that wish to amend their ESEA flexibility waiver plans to reduce testing...while still maintaining teacher and leader evaluation and support systems that include growth in student learning."

But it is precisely the federal government's insistence on requiring testing regimes that facilitate teacher and leader evaluations that include student growth metrics that caused all this over-testing in the first place.  

Outstanding principals I've talked with tell me that when tough-minded, test-based accountability came into vogue, they created or found good interventions that came with their own assessments, each keyed to the intervention they were using. They had always done that.  But their district superintendents, also fearful for their jobs under the new regime, mandated other interventions, with their own tests.  Then the state piled on with their own mandated programs and tests, all driven by the fear of leaders, at each level, that if student performance did not improve at the required rate, their own jobs were on the line. Few of these interventions were aligned with the new standards or with each other. But time was of the essence.  Better a non-aligned instructional program than none at all. Better a cheap test of basic skills they could afford than a much more expensive one they could not afford. 

What sent the numbers right over the cliff was pacing.  School administrators, focused on having their students score well on the basic skills tests used by the state accountability systems, pushed schools enrolling large numbers of disadvantaged students to figure out where the students needed to be at set intervals during the year.  This determined the pace of instruction.  It also made it much easier for administrators to get control over the instruction.  All that remained was to administer a test at each of those intervals—say every month or couple of months—to see whether the teachers were keeping pace with the scripted curriculum and the students were making enough progress to do well at the end of the semester or year. 

Pacing was the drum.  Drill and practice was the melody.  Each pacing test was a mini-version of the final test to be given by the state.  Instantly, for every federally-required test, four to six others just like it were created.  But these tests, because there were so many of them, had to be very cheap.  In the minds of some people, this was formative evaluation, but, in my mind, its effect was to regiment instruction in a way that the best advocates of formative evaluation never had in mind. 


The situation I just described must have seemed a horror to many teachers, especially teachers of disadvantaged students.  Whatever discretion they had disappeared.  Their lives became a litany of pacing guides, scripted curriculum, drill and practice and a flood of test score data to analyze.  In states with letter grade systems of accountability, school administrators quickly figured out how to game the system, concentrating their best teachers on students in the grades with mandated assessments, and, within those grades, on the students just below the thresholds of performance, which, if exceeded, would bump the school's overall grade up. They gave much less attention to the students who were far behind or who were doing well but could have done much better.

The vast proliferation of testing and the widespread use of cheap tests that fail to measure high standards did not happen because state officials did not know what a good test is or because local officials spontaneously concluded that it would be a good idea to greatly expand the use of pacing guides, drill and practice regimens and the tests that come with them.  State and district officials used lousy tests and greatly increased their use because they thought they were the only tools available to respond to the federal government's requirements for tough test-based accountability.  They were simply responding to the incentives they faced.  They still face those incentives, so there is no reason to expect them to behave any differently.  Giving them lessons on what good tests look like won't change that.  Giving them money to review their testing programs won't change that. 

The only thing that will change that would be to change the accountability systems to do less testing with much higher quality tests and to change the accountability regime to put less pressure on the schools and teachers and, instead, create incentives for students to take tough courses and work hard in school.  This is exactly what the top performing countries do.  We are, as usual, embracing a strategy that has been considered and rejected by the countries with the most successful school systems and rejecting the testing and accountability strategies they have used with great success.  If you would like to see a proposal for an accountability strategy based on their policies on testing and accountability, look here.

The situation for teachers is even more poignant.  They have turned against the Common Core not because of the standards themselves, which they like, but because of the way they have been implemented, and, in particular, because of the way they have been used to create teacher evaluation systems.  Using a logic I have yet to get my head around, the advocates of teacher evaluation appear to have convinced themselves that teacher and leader evaluation is by itself a highly promising school reform. 

The key for great school leaders isn't formal evaluation and it isn't firing people.  Only Donald Trump, evidently, fired his way to the top.  The key is running a great school that great people want to work in, and then spending a lot of time identifying, recruiting and supporting those great people.  Principals who work this way often let their staff know that they expect them to work hard.  Those who do not want to work so hard go elsewhere.  But these principals do not depend on test-based accountability systems to identify the slackers nor do they depend on test-based accountability systems to identify the teachers they want to hire or to develop them once they are hired..  Why should they?  They are in classrooms all the time, talking and observing, coaching and supporting.

The data reported by the Council of the Great City Schools reveal a calamity.  The cause is our national accountability system.  The flexibility offered by the Department of Education is welcome and refreshing, but it is not the answer.  The answer will have to wait for the day when the federal government no longer insists that the states and schools use test-based accountability and value-added strategies to assess individual teachers with consequences for individual teachers.  John King did not create this system.  Perhaps he can help this country change it.  We'll see.

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