5 Reasons Getting Rid of Annual Testing is a Dumb Idea

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the incoming leaders of the Senate and House education committees, both say they are open to an ESEA rewrite that kills the requirement for states to test students annually. Or as I called it, the peel off the party wings approach to reauthorization. This bipartisan coalition bonds over their hatred of statewide annual testing, but not much else. And any bill they produce would be, in essence, a giant finger to the policies of Arne Duncan and Barack Obama–and Margaret Spellings and George W. Bush before them.

Like Mike Petrilli in this Flypaper post, I hope Alexander’s and Kline’s annual testing one-eighty is all just a bluff to try and get Democrats to give in on requiring states to develop teacher evaluations. And I hope they come to their senses and reveal a more centrist reauthorization proposal–with annual statewide testing, and data reporting, and school accountability requirements with teeth.

Because getting rid of annual testing is a dumb idea. I acknowledge (readily) that there are very real problems with today’s tests, accountability systems, teacher evaluations, NCLB waivers, and so on. And these problems are often most acute for those most affected by them–students, families, and teachers, rather than the policymakers that wrote the law and are now responsible for updating it.

But this particular reaction–ending statewide, comparable, annual testing–is an overreaction that creates more problems than it solves. It feeds into the false narrative that testing is only able to punish, rather than inform, support, and motivate. It makes it okay that we haven’t invested nearly enough in building educator capacity to support the students that tests identify as struggling, including significant commitments to overhauling both professional development and teacher preparation. It shies away from, rather than confronts, the hard truths that tests reveal about our education system–the disparate outcomes, and disparate expectations of what students from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and socio-economic conditions can learn.

Still, given the public beating standardized tests have taken over the last decade, and the negative narrative around testing that’s solidified as a result, it remains exceedingly important for those of us that still believe in annual, statewide standardized testing to articulate–again, and again, and again–why it matters. So if the problems above weren’t sufficient to sway you, here are the top five things we lose by giving up on annual testing:

  1. A Shot at Fairer School Accountability. Proficiency rates on standardized tests, as NCLB showed, often revealed more about the makeup of a school’s student body than what the school was doing to improve their education. Until growth measures. Using annual tests, states can now isolate what schools add to students’ learning experiences, regardless of background or prior capability. Two schools that look the same in terms of proficiency can look remarkably different on growth—because one of the schools is accelerating students’ learning trajectories upward, and the other is not. While far from the reality in far too many states, accountability systems at least have the potential now to accurately and fairly capture these differences—ensuring that schools with challenging student populations are not automatically penalized for the students they serve. Without annual tests, however, that potential is lost, and states’ accountability metrics will likely revert to being almost entirely correlated with student characteristics, rather than real differences in school performance—a huge setback for low-income schools and communities.
  2. High Standards for Students that Matter. Annual assessments don’t exist in isolation. They weren’t brought here by magic. They exist because states believed it was important to lay out clear expectations for what all kids needed to know at each grade level in order to succeed in future educational settings, the workforce, or as a contributing member of civic life. The case for state standards stretches back decades–to A Nation at Risk. But standards are just words on a page. Assessing whether students meet them makes those words matter. Regardless of whether they’re Common Core standards, or not, pretending that it isn’t important to regularly assess and report on students’ progress, in a consistent and comparable way, against whatever standards states have undermines their legitimacy and belittles the notion that it’s important for students to master essential knowledge and competencies. States have put tremendous resources–and increasingly, political capital–into writing college- and career-ready standards. If those expectations are paramount for all students, statewide, then so is frequently and consistently assessing whether students are meeting them, statewide.
  3. Continuous Improvement and Innovation. Annual, statewide assessments are powerful, because they provide actionable information to guide improvement, at multiple levels. They are much more than a “label” for schools or kids. Rich annual testing data, including growth over time, demonstrate where state and district resources should be targeted and what those resources should do. A school with low proficiency rates for English language learners needs a different kind of support and strategy than a school with low growth rates in 7th and 8th grade math for all students. Annual tests have also helped validate novel and innovative reforms: charter schools and portfolio districts; evaluation systems that provide real feedback on educator practice; early warning systems that help prevent student disengagement and dropout; and more. All of these initiatives–and future policy innovations, like personalized learning and competency-based education–depend on regular assessment and evaluation to validate them.
  4. Smarter School Choice. Without an annual testing requirement, the kinds of tests offered at the local level will likely skyrocket. But the only comparable measure across states (or even districts) could be 4th grade, 8th grade, and 11th grade tests. And this could make responsible school choice policies and expansion more challenging. How will parents make informed school choices, within or across districts, if they are presented with a different data profile at every turn? What use is an A-F grading system if the components that make up those grades are different from school to school? Further, choice advocates–and skeptics–should also value annual testing. How can high-quality charter schools show they are as effective, or better, than traditional public schools if they don’t have comparable data to prove it? And what about charter schools that struggle? Because many charters start with only one or two grades, it’s possible that some could be failing to educate students adequately for years before those deficiencies show up in testing data. Annual testing data isn’t just essential for fairer school accountability for traditional public schools, but also for effective choice policies and authorizing mechanisms across sectors.
  5. Fiscally Responsible Governance and Safeguards. The federal government spends over $14 billion on Title I grants in NCLB annually–not to mention over $11 billion on special education. And those are just the two largest federal K-12 programs. Education is also one of the biggest budget line items at the state level, and a significant cost for local jurisdictions, too. It is simply illogical to invest this kind of money at a system-level without assessing the returns in terms of student outcomes–and assessing them in a way that is comparable across districts, across states, and across time to the greatest extent possible. Running a state education system becomes a guessing game if every district submits different evidence of their results. Worse, it may not only enable inequity to fester, but also allow it to grow if inequity can no longer be measured accurately, or can only be measured at certain points in time where data allow it.

The move away from annual testing isn’t just a “bad idea whose time has come,” as my colleague Andy Smarick wrote. It’s a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea. Here’s hoping that policymakers listen to reason.

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