This Issue Is Bigger Than Just Testing

What do we hear from those who oppose testing? Schools burden students with excessive test preparation. Districts force students to take standardized tests throughout the school year that aren’t aligned to what students are learning. Some states and districts have unfairly penalized teachers during this period of transition to common standards of learning.

What might come as a surprise to some is that I agree with all of the criticisms. There is too much test preparation. There are too many unaligned tests given throughout the year. And some states and districts haven’t given enough thought to how to evaluate teachers during the transition period. All that said, I firmly believe that tests are fundamentally necessary and that the new tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards, which are better and fairer than former assessments, are a key tool for educators and parents to ensure their students are on track for college and career.

Last year, roughly 20 percent of New York State public school students refused to sit for standardized tests. In the state of Washington, 48,000 students didn’t take the state assessment. A few other states, such as New Jersey and Colorado, also gained media attention when large numbers of students refused to take tests.

ednext_XVI_4_forum_fig02-smallWhen we look further at these opt-outs, we find an interesting trend. Students who didn’t take the assessments in New York were more likely to be white, well off, and from upscale cities and towns (see Figure 2a). They were also modestly lower achieving than those who took the tests (see Figure 2b). In Washington State, the vast majority of those opting out were from economically advantaged households, and a high percentage were 11th graders. As they prepare for college, many 11th graders take the SAT or ACT and perhaps Advanced Placement exams as well, and they probably don’t relish the idea of also having to take state standardized tests.

Despite the media hype and the overheated and often irresponsible rhetoric of test-refusal activists (which only adds to students’ anxiety), this issue is about common sense and equity. Test refusers commonly try to throw all of education’s ills into the sink. There is no doubt that there was a rocky transition with the Common Core and the aligned tests, but instead of joining a productive debate and coming together with solutions, opt-out activists have taken unilateral action. The ones being harmed are those commonly stuck in the middle—the students. The simple question we need to keep at the center of this issue is, are we counting every child and ensuring that he or she is on a path to college and career? That needs to be our singular focus when it comes to talking about the value of testing as a tool in educators’ and parents’ toolboxes.

All parents, regardless of socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, or their child’s disability designation, need to know how their child is doing in reading, writing, and math. Just because a student attends an advantaged school does not mean that he or she is automatically on track for college or career. Conversely, a student attending a chronically underperforming school is not necessarily achieving below grade level. Yearly assessments provide a piece of critical information for parents who in many cases may not be getting the full picture from their children’s report cards.

The fact is, no parent gets excited about his or her child taking a standardized test, just as we don’t get excited about taking our kids for annual checkups at the doctor’s office. My organization, Stand for Children, has championed legislation in multiple states to significantly reduce testing time. We also support the idea of districts conducting thoughtful audits of their assessment practices in order to weed out unnecessary testing.

Students should only take tests that 1) are aligned to what they’re learning, 2) are high quality, and 3) serve a useful purpose. While you wouldn’t know it based on the shallow media coverage, many educators consider the new generation of standardized tests to be far superior at assessing student learning than any previous tests. For instance, Massachusetts educators strongly prefer the PARCC exam over the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), which isn’t fully aligned with the state curriculum frameworks. And a recent report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, comparing the new tests with older ones, indicated that the PARCC and Smarter Balanced exams had the strongest matches with the criteria that the Council of Chief State School Officers developed for evaluating high-quality assessments.

Personally, I’m glad my sons, now 5th graders, are required to take a standardized test annually from 3rd through 8th grade. I deeply value their teachers’ perspective on how they’re progressing academically and in other ways, but I also want a more objective gauge of whether they’re on grade level in math, reading, and writing. For the same reason, I strongly believe in taking my sons for an annual medical checkup, even if they seem healthy to me.

Every child in our country needs to learn how to read, write, and do basic math. If children can’t master these fundamental skills, they can’t learn and progress in other key ways, and can’t possibly get a good job when they grow up. And they may well end up incarcerated or chronically unemployed.

That’s why educators, parents, advocates, and policymakers need to know how students are doing in reading, writing, and math throughout the K–12 years. For all students, but particularly for the tens of millions of American students growing up in poverty, it’s a life-defining question.

High-quality standardized tests help:

• parents know whether their children are on track so they can work with teachers to resolve issues before it’s too late;

• teachers know how their students compare with others across the state, and help the next grade’s teachers know what kind of support incoming students need;

• educators use data to inform instructional decisions in future years based on cohort performance;

• school leaders know which teachers are doing well and which ones may need extra attention;

• school administrators know which schools are doing well and which ones need careful review;

• policymakers and the public know how marginalized students—including low-income students of color and those with disabilities—are doing and help prevent school systems and society itself from ignoring their needs.

Let’s stay on that last point for a moment. There is a reason the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed into law in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights movement, as there was clear disparity in states across the country in how students were educated based simply on the color of their skin, income level, or ability. Without standardized tests, how would we even know if disproportionate numbers of low-income children and children of color in a particular school or community are behind? How would parents in underserved communities with a high percentage of low-performing schools have any idea their children are attending a failing school? How else but with standardized tests?

These aren’t abstract questions. Given that the majority of public school students in our nation are nonwhite and come from low-income families, they are also defining questions for the future of our nation.

At Stand for Children, we work with thousands of low-income parents and guardians in underserved communities all across the nation, from Phoenix to Indianapolis, Boston to Baton Rouge, Denver to Chicago, Tulsa to Tacoma. Like the vast majority of low-income parents, the parents and guardians (including many grandparents raising grandchildren) with whom we work are deeply committed to their children getting a good education, knowing it’s their only hope for a better life. And yet, committed as they are, it’s frighteningly common for parents and guardians with whom we work to believe wrongly that their children are on track because they’re bringing home good grades. It’s also sadly common for these parents to think their children are in good schools—when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’m talking about the African American grandmother in Memphis who was horrified to discover after we taught her how to interpret standardized test results that her four grandchildren—all of whom were getting As and Bs in school—were up to three grades behind in reading. With the assistance of Stand for Children, she found the children extra help right away, and they’ve caught up.

I’m thinking of the many dozens of Latino immigrant parents we worked with in the Murphy School District in Phoenix who were dismayed to learn their district was chronically failing to educate their children. Armed with that information and empowered by the state’s open-enrollment law, they moved their children to better public schools.

Then there are the African American parents we supported at School 93 in a low-income neighborhood of Indianapolis, who, after learning their school was one of the worst-performing in the state of Indiana, advocated to bring a proven local school-improvement model called Project Restore to their school. The result has been a dramatically improved instructional focus, a positive school climate, and marked progress for students.

How would that caring Memphis grandmother have known her grandchildren were behind if it weren’t for standardized tests? Without standardized tests, how would the committed Murphy parents have known their district was wantonly failing? How would the School 93 parents have found out there was a problem with their children’s school? What would have happened to all of those children if they didn’t have this critical information point to add to the others?

I can tell you this with confidence: standardized tests aren’t a nuisance to the families we work with, nor for me. For the families we serve, whose children are more apt to attend low-performing schools and have less-effective teachers than their privileged peers, the time taken for standardized tests is a reasonable cost for receiving vital information about how their children are doing academically. The same should hold true for more affluent families choosing to opt out of the annual assessment. If children who are experiencing success in schools or for whom schools generally “work” (that is, white, middle-class, nondisabled children) don’t participate in the assessment, their parents lose valuable information. And decisionmakers lose valuable information about where there may be bright spots to learn from and where improvement or intervention is needed.

That’s why civil rights organizations such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Urban League, the National Disability Rights Network, and National Council of La Raza campaigned so hard—and successfully—during the debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act to convince Congress and the Obama administration to continue to require annual measurements of student progress.

Opponents of standardized tests often ignore the vital role assessments play in the struggle for educational equity. They also commonly argue that the United States tests students more than most countries. That’s simply untrue.

Andreas Schleicher of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which oversees the multinational Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, expressed wonderment at U.S. news coverage of test refusals. “The U.S. is not a country of heavy testing,” Schleicher noted. In fact, he told the Hechinger Report and U.S. News & World Report that most of the 70 OECD nations give their students more standardized tests than we do in the United States. The Netherlands, Belgium, and several Asian countries—all of which have high-performing education systems—test students much more.

Standardized tests are common the world over because they serve an essential purpose—to provide information about learning in schools. That said, standardized tests obviously don’t measure the myriad other ways children need to develop to be contributing members of society, and we need to make sure that schools don’t overly focus on core subjects and fail to educate the whole child. We also need to ensure that instruction is relevant and engaging so that students are motivated to come to school and learn.

Furthermore, there are ways in which we can improve standardized testing in our country.

An issue that gets little attention from the news media is that too many schools lack the technology or bandwidth to enable efficient standardized testing to take place. This situation must be remedied so we can minimize the time needed to administer standardized tests (and enable more students to benefit from better technology throughout the school year).

In addition, test providers should deliver assessment results more quickly so parents and teachers can use the information right away. And perhaps we need to consider shifting toward shorter assessments taken at intervals throughout the year. That approach needs further exploration, but it could provide teachers and parents with more immediately useful information. There are such tests on the market, but most don’t align with what students are learning, and they don’t yet enable monitoring of how educators, schools, districts, and states are doing.

For now, I hope that more parents will begin to recognize that standardized tests provide invaluable information that can help us move toward equity in public education and improve the system for everyone. Let’s stop this battle and instead work together for solutions that help all students get the education they deserve.

This piece is part of a forum on the testing opt-out movement. For an alternate perspective, see “Opt-Out Reflects the Genuine Concerns of Parents” by Scott Levy.

This article appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Levy, S. and Edelman, J. (2016). Making Sense of the Opt-Out Movement. Education Next, 16(4), 54-64.

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