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How The Big New Education Law Could Cut Testing Time

Both houses of Congress have now passed versions of the bill that would update the largest federal education law, known as No Child Left Behind, for the first time since 2001. They are big, meaty and complicated, and now they have to be reconciled into one messy Dagwood sandwich of a bill to go to the president.

There's one slice in the pile that hasn't been widely discussed. The Senate version of the bill contains several amendments aimed at addressing one of the hottest issues in education: standardized testing. "This bill would ... reduce the burden of testing on classroom time," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in his official statement about the Senate bill.

At first glance that seemed to me like a surprising claim. After all, the bedrock federal requirement remains in place: testing every student, every year, in math and reading, from grades three through eight and once in high school.

However, while the law required, and still requires, annual testing, it doesn't specify how much or for how long. While the federal testing mandate remains, the new bill would encourage states to reconsider how that testing is implemented.

In other words, "test every kid every year" might not necessarily mean testing them for weeks on end.

Moreover, as we reported last year, the vast majority of standardized tests that students are taking in school are mandated by states and districts, not federal law. It's these tests that the Senate bill is especially trying to tackle, specifically through amendments introduced by two Democratic senators: Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

Baldwin's amendment, based on a bill she had previously introduced known as the SMART (Support Making Assessments Reliable and Timely) Act, would grant cash to states to audit their current testing program, soup to nuts:

  • How much money do the tests cost?
  • How much time do they take?
  • How long does it take for the scores to come out?
  • Are the tests "valid," "reliable," "relevant"?
  • Are they "accessible" to students with all kinds of disabilities?

Furthermore, the amendment would provide funds for the creation of new, better tests, to improve reporting of the data that come from tests, and to support teachers in using that information. And the money could be used to help teachers develop their own assessments that are "formative" and aligned to state standards. Formative is a technical term that implies tests that give useful, timely feedback for learning, as opposed to summative assessments that simply give students a stamp of approval or disapproval at the end of the year.

"This commonsense provision gives us the tools and resources to work with states and districts to reduce unnecessary assessments, especially by targeting redundant and low-quality tests," Baldwin told NPR.

You may have gone to school in an old building where the walls were sagging and peeling coat after coat of paint. If the wall is never properly stripped, the new paint can't go on smoothly. The same kind of years of buildup is apparent in district testing requirements at schools across the country.

A survey of states last year found at least 23 distinct purposes for tests, including: state and federal accountability, high school graduation, grade promotion, English proficiency testing, program evaluation, teacher evaluation, diagnostics, end-of-year predictions or fulfilling the requirements of specific grants. That can add up to 10 to 20 tests a year, or an average of 113 tests by the time students graduate.

Various groups, including the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools, have been trying to encourage states and districts to review and cut back on tests; the SMART Act would put funds behind that idea. It's been acclaimed by data and accountability-focused groups like the Education Trust and Teach Plus.

Sen. Bennet, a former district superintendent in Denver, added two more focused overtesting amendments to the bill. These would require states to cap the percentage of instructional time spent taking assessments required by federal law, the state or the local district. Districts would then have to notify parents if their district exceeded the state testing threshold.

The amendments would also require districts to publish more information to parents about testing.

"This is precisely what the Obama administration asked Congress to take on, and it is an important step to help reduce overtesting and shift to fewer — but better — tests," Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said of both Bennet's and Baldwin's proposals.

Cutting back on tests deemed "unnecessary" is one idea that has support from a broad range of education watchers. If these amendments make it through reconciliation, they're likely to have the president's support. Will they make anti-test and opt-out groups happy?

Not completely, but it's a start. Marla Kilfoyle is a teacher on Long Island, New York, a center of the opt-out movement, and the general manager of the Badass Teachers Association, a national group that opposes standardized testing. Hundreds of its members will be on Capitol Hill this week lobbying senators and the Department of Education to halt standardized testing, among other ideas aiming to empower teachers.

Kilfoyle spoke positively of the new flexibilities that would be granted to states in both the House and Senate versions of the bill. However, her group is adamant "that annual testing will NOT close the widening achievement gap."

They support testing students only once each in elementary, middle and high school, and using random sampling rather than testing every child in a grade. Bottom line? "We are disappointed that high-stakes annual testing still exists."

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