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TESTING OVERLOAD?: New Study Finds U.S. Students Are Spending Time Taking Redundant Tests

In schools across the country, students are spending time taking redundant tests that are often misaligned with college- and career-ready standards, according to a new report by the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS). The two-year study, Student Testing in America’s Great City Schools: An Inventory and Preliminary Analysis, which the Council believes could be the “most comprehensive ever undertaken to ascertain the true extent of mandatory testing in the nation’s schools,” examines the frequency of testing, types and origins of assessments and requirements, and how the tests are used in public schools in sixty-six of the Council’s member school districts.

According to the report, the average student takes approximately 112 mandatory standardized tests from pre-kindergarten through high school graduation. In School Year (SY) 2014–15 alone, there were about 401 unique tests administered, and students sat for tests more than 6,570 times. The report finds some redundancy in the exams districts give, with students often taking multiple exams for districts to yield data by item, grade, subject, student, or school. In addition, the findings suggest that tests are not always aligned, do not assess mastery of any specific content, and do not match with college- or career-ready standards. The below chart of the average number of total assessments per district that are mandated for all students, by grade level, shows the largest numbers of tests are taken by children in grades 8 and 10.

Average Number of Assessments per District GraphStudents typically take about eight standardized tests per year, consuming between 20 and 25 hours each school year, the report finds. As shown in the graph below, eighth-grade students spent approximately 25.3 hours, or 2.34 percent, of school time taking tests during SY 2014–15, which the report says may be a result of requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), combined with various science, writing, technology, end-of-course, high-school placement, and other required exams.

Average Testing Time in Hours per Year for Students at Each Grade Level Graph

Even though tests are being administered to measure student progress, nearly 40 percent of districts reported having to wait between two and four months to see results at the school level, “thereby minimizing their utility for instructional purposes,” the report notes, adding that “most state tests are administered in the spring and results come back to the districts after the conclusion of the school year.”

The report was designed to provide objective evidence to the on-going debate about standardized testing in public schools. As the introduction to the report points out, the controversies arising from this public disagreement on testing have “stoked the testing ‘opt-out’ movement, fueled divisions among public educators and others, undermined the new state standards, and created substantial backlash over the use of assessments.” A characteristic of the heated debate has been to put the blame on various entities, especially the local school systems, but the report shows evidence to the contrary.

“Everyone has some culpability in how much testing there is and how redundant and uncoordinated it is—Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, states, local school systems, and even individual schools and teachers,” said Michael Casserly, the Council’s executive director, in a press release announcing the findings. “Everyone must play a role in improving this situation.”

U.S. Department of Education Issues “Testing Action Plan”

On the same day the report was published, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released a Testing Action Plan to outline its role in improving the testing landscape. The plan offers a set of principles and steps for fewer and smarter assessments to ensure that assessments are worth taking, of high quality, and time-limited, among other measures.

“In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students,” the plan reads. “The Administration bears some of the responsibility for this, and we are committed to being part of the solution.”

This plan is an attempt to correct this testing imbalance while protecting the role of good assessment in guiding progress for students and evaluating schools and educators.

“Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity,” the narrative reads. “They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners. Done poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose, they take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creative approaches from our classrooms.”

The administration plans to provide (1) financial support to help states develop better and less burdensome assessments; (2) expertise for those states and districts that are trying to reduce testing time; (3) flexibility from federal mandates; and (4) a reduction in use of student test scores for evaluating educators and teacher preparation programs.

One item that received a great deal of attention was the plan’s recommendation that states cap the percentage of instructional time students spend taking required statewide standardized assessments at 2 percent.

“What happens if somebody puts a cap on testing, and to meet the cap ends up eliminating tests that could actually be helpful, or leaves the redundancy in the test and gets rid of a test that teachers can use to inform their instruction?,” Casserly said in the New York Times.

The 2 percent cap was one of several recommendations targeted at Congress as it works to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as NCLB. ED also urged Congress to ensure a new ESEA focuses on the most vulnerable students by requiring that states and districts take action in schools where subgroups of students are continually falling behind, including the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, and high schools with low graduation rates.

Student Testing in America’s Great City Schools is available at http://www.cgcs.org/cms/lib/DC00001581/Centricity/Domain/87/Testing%20Report.pdf.

ED’s Testing Action Plan is available at

http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/fact-sheet-testing-action-plan.

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