Why We Need To Improve Standardized Testing

CREDIT: Christine Armario, AP

FILE - In this April 30, 2015 file photo, Leticia Fonseca, 16, left, and her twin sister, Sylvia Fonseca, right, work in the computer lab at Cuyama Valley High School after taking the new Common Core-aligned standardized tests, in New Cuyama, Calif.

Parents who oppose standardized testing have become increasingly vocal in the past few years, especially after Common Core state standards were implemented across the U.S.

This frustration culminated in the so-called “opt-out movement,” which heated up last spring and fostered a debate over whether tests disrupt student learning and whether they should be used to judge teachers’ performance. State legislatures began considering bills enabling parents to opt out of tests. The relationship between administrators and parents became adversarial at times, with some administrators sending hostile emails to parents who chose to opt out.

But what would have happened if state governments and school administrators attempted to have a conversation with parents about what the test is used for, how to make test-taking easier for students, and what improvements could help test-taking go as smoothly and quickly as possible?

According to a new report from the Center for American Progress on implementing the No Child Left Behind rewrite, or the Every Student Succeeds Act, states and schools could do much more to communicate with parents — and ensure that a child’s day at school doesn’t revolve around standardized testing. (Disclosure: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent site housed at the Center for American Progress.)

The Obama administration supports a move toward greater efficiency and quality of tests. The U.S. Department of Education, which has recommended that schools spend no more than 2 percent of classroom time taking tests, released official guidance on Tuesday providing more specifics on how federal funds can be used to improve testing. The guidance explains that states and districts should use federal money for professional development for teachers, to make sure tests and curricula are aligned, to audit assessments, and to facilitate better conversations with parents about why the tests are required.

For its report, the Center for American Progress interviewed parents — who were split politically, but were mostly made up of white women — about their attitudes toward testing. The parents who participated were more likely to see the value of tests such as the ACT, SAT, and AP exams because the influence on their child’s education is clear to them (i.e., it will affect their college application). In comparison, parents have a hard time understanding a statewide exam’s direct affect on a child. Making matters worse, some of the teachers interviewed said they never saw test results, and parents said they didn’t discuss the results at parent-teacher conferences.

More affluent parents tended to see the test as more of an inconvenience — a result that makes sense, considering that New York districts with the most opt outs also tended to be wealthier, with a median income of $98,000.

Instead of providing students with challenging lessons throughout the year that will ensure they are ready for the tests, teachers in many school districts end up spending instructional time specifically on preparing students for the test. Essentially, teachers aren’t being provided the support they need to ensure they understand how to design curricula that better align with tests. Instead, this “teaching to the test” approach may disrupt disadvantaged students’ learning process more. Lower-income parents were twice as likely to say their child received test prep than the highest income parents who took part in the study.

A lack of available technology to administer tests is also a significant problem for schools with fewer resources, especially rural schools, the report finds. This can extend the time taken to administer tests, which further disrupts the students’ education and takes away from vital instructional time. The average student-to-computer ratio is 5.3 to 1, according to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics data, taken in 2009.

The report notes that some districts are working to find solutions to these issues. The Ruidoso Municipal School District in New Mexico, for example, is trying to change the testing culture by giving students “mini-assessments” that are not called tests and that are aligned with the state’s academic standards. Teachers go over the results of the assessments, which are not punitive to students, and use the subsequent data on student progress to share best practices and develop new ways to teach students the information.

As state tests begin again this month, it’s especially important that the U.S. Department of Education, states, and school districts consider how to ensure tests are aligned with state standards, that they’re efficient and don’t take away from instructional time, and that parents are better informed on how the tests will be administered. Louisiana started its state tests Monday and seven more states will begin administering tests before next month.