On Wednesday, CCSSO (the organization of state superintendents) joined with CGCS (the organization of big urban school districts) to announce joint plans to reassess and scale back testing programs. This is big news, and it’s getting lots of attention. Here are the ten big things to know about the announcement.
1. A direct response to testing concerns. These two leading organizations are clearly responding to the pressure to reduce or end testing emanating from the AFT, former President Clinton, Secretary Duncan, and others. They’re agreeing to audit the number and types of tests administered and develop new systems that are leaner (eliminating “multiple assessments of the same students for similar purposes”) and more integrated (“complement each other in a way the defines a coherent system of measures”).
2. Won’t back down. CCSSO and CGCS, however, are standing firm on testing, and the most vociferous anti-testing forces aren’t happy about it (Randi Weingarten, for example, said the plan fails to address the fundamental problem of “test fixation”). The joint statement makes clear these leaders believe deeply in the value of smart testing systems. They even explicitly defend annual testing, presumably including state-administered, end-of-year assessments. That’s a major statement (and one I heartily endorse).
3. The golden mean. The plan is a smart “third-way” approach. The testing status quo generates valuable information on student, school, and district performance, but because many schools and districts have suffered an accretion of tests over years (adding new tests without ending existing ones), the burden of testing and test preparation had, in some places, become too much. Some responded by lashing out against testing and accountability generally. CCSSO and CGCS are arguing for a compromise position, conceding that testing is too extensive in some locations and committing to do something about it without backing a full-scale retreat on testing. This is a moderate position in a polarized debate.
4. Leadership as public statement. Take note of who presented the plan. John King, John White, and Kaya Henderson are the leaders of New York’s, Louisiana’s, and Washington, D.C.’s schools, respectively. They are widely recognized for dedicating their careers to closing the achievement gap. White and Henderson taught in low-income schools via Teach for America and have primarily worked on behalf of disadvantaged kids since. King helped run one of the nation’s finest high-performing high-poverty schools. Some accountability supporters get concerned when there’s talk of “testing reform;” that can be a euphemism for “testing backtracking,” meaning less attention to the educational needs of underserved kids. It is meaningful that King, White, and Henderson are advancing this plan.
5. Giving smart testing legs. These three leaders are also relatively young; they reflect the next-generation of system leaders. They are not necessarily associated with the 1990s battles over standards and accountability or the 2000s fights over NCLB. Symbolically, they are staking out a prudent, new, evolved position, something along the lines of, “Let’s mend—not end—our approach to tests and accountability.”
6. New collaboration or conflict? The statement says states and districts will work “in tandem” to continuously improve state and local assessments systems. This would certainly be new. States have traditionally seen decisions about state tests as part of their exclusive domain. States have the contracts with vendors, they pay for the tests, the tests are aligned with standards they set, the tests are part of state accountability systems, and so on. As a result, many states have cozy, longstanding relationships with vendors, and some state leaders will probably be inclined to protect this turf. Inserting districts into the decision-making mix would be a big deal; it’ll also be a major lift.
7. A warning to test vendors. If states and districts do team up to make testing decisions and fulfill their commitment to continuously reassess their testing systems, then the jobs of vendors just got a whole lot harder. Many test producers have built strong, trusting relationships with their client states. Add one or more districts to the relationship, and suddenly company becomes a crowd. Vendors will have more stakeholders to satisfy in each state. Moreover, regular state-district reconsideration of testing systems will require vendors to convince their clients on an ongoing basis that their products are the right ones. Lastly, the most immediate consequence of fewer tests being administered is fewer tests being purchased. Suddenly, the testing pie got a lot smaller for vendors. Expect furious competition as PARCC, SBAC, and the many private providers launch full-scale charm-and-convince offensives.
8. Less testing innovation, especially with formative and interim tests? If some number of end-of-year tests for accountability purposes are a guaranteed part of states’ slimmed-down assessment systems, something else has to give. That’s likely to be interim and formative tests. When these are well-constructed, educators love them: They provide actionable information on students’ needs, accurately forecast performance on summative tests, and have no stakes tied to them. They can also make use of new technologies and other emerging innovations. As a result, our new, leaner testing systems could end up with little or no interim assessments and pretty standard designs…in other words, looking a whole lot like old testing systems.
9. An uninvited Uncle Sam crashes the party. One of the most notable parts of the plan was that the federal government was all but invisible: no mention in the release and no participation in the announcement call. It felt like states and districts were trying to take back the issue of testing. But on the heels of the announcement, Secretary Duncan chimed in with a short statement of support. Of note, he came out in favor of annual assessments while agreeing that too much energy is currently being spent on testing. (Also of note, it appears that Sen. Lamar Alexander is not wedded to annual tests.) In an unexpected turn, the White House issued a supportive statement, too, directing Duncan to help the cause. Does this mean the feds will stand down and allow state and district leaders to take charge of testing? Does this mean Secretary Duncan will feel less need to speak ill of testing? And most importantly…
10. What does this mean for “peer review,” ESEA reauthorization, and other federal action? Even if states and districts hope to lead the future debate about tests, the federal government has to act in several areas. It has an obligation to conduct “peer review” of state testing systems. It has to make test-related decisions when considering ESEA waivers. Congress and the administration have to decide whether the NCLB-mandated grade 3–8 reading and math tests remain. How all of this plays out is anyone’s guess. But there’s no doubt that the CCSSO-CGCS plan has changed the testing debate generally and on these inside-the-Beltway matters as well.
– Andy Smarick
This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.