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Testing the Standardized Test

James Paterson

ESSA brings changes, and schools are exploring alternatives.

There are few topics that create more discussion in education than the standardized test, and now the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is perhaps resolving some of the debate, but also creating more.

The law changes the standardized test, but all the ways it will be interpreted are yet to be seen. In some cases, there have been difficulties related to provisions that allow students to opt out of testing, or in how administrators have interpreted the changes, but in other cases experts see promise and healthy evaluation of alternatives.

There has been significant debate about the portion that allows parents to choose whether their child takes a standardized test, according to Lisa Guisbond, assessment reform analyst at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit group known as FairTest that works to end the flaws sometimes related to standardized tests.

Opting Out of the Standardized Test

“The federal Every Student Succeeds Act— the successor K-12 law to No Child Left Behind — is ambiguous, if not contradictory, in the way it deals with children who opt out of standardized exams,” she noted in the Washington Post.

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She notes that while the law allows parents to refuse, it also requires that states include some record of the test refusers in their evaluations and acts to lower the number if they reach more than 5%.

“These requirements do not mean that states, districts, or schools should bully or coerce parents and students,” she says. “Yet stories continue to surface of states and districts threatening and pressuring families who do refuse to participate in standardized exam overuse and misuse.”

She cites examples of where the requirements of the law have created problems.

Some students who refused to take standardized tests in Washington, D.C., were told to take a traditional test on paper, and in New Jersey and other states, students who refused were given an additional test by their teachers, which they were told would count toward their grade. In addition, families have been told that they are putting their school at risk of losing state or federal funding, or that students would be labeled “Not proficient” if they did not take the test.

“What is presented by administrators as policy is sometimes flat-out false,” she writes.

Clearly, experts say, although the intent of providing students and parents more freedom when it comes to high-stakes testing were probably good, there are issues with the opt-out portion of ESSA that must be worked out.

Positive Signs

Others welcome additional changes the law brings, and believe it will provide an evaluation of alternatives.

ESSA allows more use of tests like the ACT or SAT instead of a state test in high schools, and lets states establish a cap on the amount of times students spend taking tests. It also supports states who want to streamline testing, eliminating unnecessary and duplicative assessments, an provides for more use of adaptive testing.

Hilary Scharton, vice president for K-12 education at Canvas, the learning management application used by many school districts, is convinced that the ESSA changes in regard to testing will have a positive effect.

“Educators were excited in 2016 when NCLB (No Child Left Behind Act) switched over to ESSA because of the differences in how states would report student data,” she says. “One institutionalized high-stakes test led to predictive benchmarking and even more testing for underperforming students, which ultimately resulted in more parents opting out of testing entirely. But now states could develop an assessment system that combined multiple measures and focused on growth rather than benchmarks.”

She says states are experimenting with the federal government’s blessing to develop “Multiple lower stakes, growth-oriented, formative, student-centered assessments” and ways to provide better data structures that would allow shorter, more efficient assessments.

“Students and teachers are the big winners in these new models. Teachers won’t have to resign themselves to waiting until sometime in the summer to see student data. They’ll be able to see what students know at frequent intervals throughout the school year and use that data to drive instruction.”

She says data will be collected and used more often to improve achievement. 

“Most importantly, though, teachers will no longer sacrifice the equivalent of 10 instructional days every school year to test prep and testing.”

It all means that while they will examine the ways that standardized tests are administered with a goal of improving their link to improved performance, there will be more consideration of alternatives.

Exploring Alternatives

Some of those were spelled out in the recent book “The Test. Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing, But You Don't Have To Be” by Anna Kamenetz.

Sampling. The same tests could be used less frequently, for instance, by administering them to a sampling of students, rather than to every student every year, in the way the "Nation's Report Card" works. The international PISA test works similarly.

Stealth Assessment. These collect data, but over time to show student understanding and progress. “Stealth assessment doesn't just show which skills a student has mastered at a given moment,” Kamentez writes. “The pattern of answers potentially offers insights into how quickly students learn, how diligent they are and other big-picture factors.” It would involve “Monitoring students' learning digitally day to day.” She says the platforms for such assessment are new and untested, and this option would involve an investment in software and equipment.

Multiple Measures. Schools could incorporate more, and different, kinds of data on student progress and school performance into accountability measures. They could look at data from a variety of different sources — graduation rates, discipline outcomes, demographic information, teacher-created assessments and, eventually, workforce outcomes – to assess the performance of students, schools and teachers over a period of time. She says they could include social and emotional skills surveys, game-based assessments or performance- or portfolio-based assessments.

Inspections. Scotland uses a mix of approaches, but then carries out a series of government inspections to look at lessons and student work, and interviews both students and staff members at schools and offer suggestions.