How Congress Can Address Over-Testing Without Overreaching

Senator Lamar Alexander, Representative John Kline, and their respective staffs have successfully freaked out sizable portions of the education-reform crowd—especially those who spend our days inside the Beltway bubble—by threatening to eliminate No Child Left Behind’s annual testing requirement. I’m hoping that this is just a bluff or feint—a way to strengthen their negotiating position—because the idea is so insane.  Do Republicans really want to scrap the transparency that comes from measuring student (and school and district) progress from year to year and go back to the Stone Age of judging schools based on a snapshot in time? Or worse, based on inputs, promises, and claims? Are they seriously proposing to eliminate the data that are powering great studies and new findings every day on topics from vouchers to charters to teacher effectiveness and more?

I suspect they’ll come to their senses. But I do appreciate the impulse—both the reaction to a dozen years of Washington micromanagement (taken to new heights by Arne Duncan’s conditional waivers) and the very real concern about over-testing in the classroom. If the GOP wants actually to fix that problem, however, rather than just rail about it, here’s an idea: Kill the federal mandate around teacher evaluations and much of the over-testing will go away.

That’s because much of the huge growth in testing in recent years hasn’t come from No Child Left Behind’s annual accountability tests (in reading and math in grades 3–8); those have been around for a decade. And it’s not because districts have suddenly fallen in love with formative assessments. It’s because states and districts have purchased or created all manner of new tests in order to comply with Arne Duncan’s teacher evaluation mandate.

That seems to be the case in our home state of Ohio. The Buckeye State promised (under Race to the Top, and again when applying for its ESEA waiver) to evaluate teachers based, in part, on student outcomes. But like most states, it quickly determined that just 20 percent or so of the teachers could be evaluated with the end-of-year tests in reading and math. What to do about all of those teachers in non-tested subjects or grades? How to evaluate them?

The commonsense answer, in my view, would have been to use everything but test scores, such as principal or peer or expert observations, parent surveys, and maybe even kid surveys. Instead, states like Ohio went down the rabbit hole of trying to develop new tests in order to collect student outcome data on all of their teachers. (Ohio’s efforts to create assessments for gym teachers were particularly ridiculous, as our Terry Ryan reported last year.) Sometimes these pre-and post-tests are bona fide standardized instruments, like the MAP assessment from NWEA. In other cases, they are “student growth objectives,” which feel like tests to kids (and their parents) but lack standardization and reliability. Altogether, it means that kids are taking a whole lot more tests than they used to. (Similar developments have played out in Florida, Tennessee, and other states.) And all of this was launched by a federal mandate—one that had no statutory basis, no less.

So to Senator Alexander and Representative Kline I say: By all means, push back against an overzealous Department of Education. And yes, please do something about the over-testing that has infected our schools. But the right course of action is to eliminate the teacher evaluation mandate; leave the annual accountability tests alone.

-Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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