Plan to end over-testing needs more action

By Editorial Board

Since the implementation of mandatory standardized tests through No Child Left Behind in 2001, over-testing has become a concern for parents, teachers and students across the nation.

The average student takes 112 standardized tests between preschool and grade 12, according to a 2015 study by the Council of the Great City Schools. Eighth-graders spend an average of 25.3 hours taking standardized tests during the school year, according to the study, which did not include optional tests, like Advanced Placement or technical tests, and the time spent to prepare for standardized tests.

In a video posted to The White House’s Facebook page Oct. 24, President Barack Obama addressed over-testing in America, calling for standardized tests to meet three requirements: tests should be worth taking, enhance teaching and learning and provide an all-around evaluation of student and school performance. Obama’s bold stance was surprising, considering his past record of supporting standardized testing through Common Core, a nationalized curriculum that relies heavily on standardized testing to measure student success. 

Obama’s requests were welcomed by the U.S. Department of Education through the Testing Action Plan, released the same day. The plan outlines promises of financial support for states to develop more meaningful assessments for measuring student success and guidance for school districts and states about reductions in testing, successful models across the country and more transparent teacher assessments. It also recommends that states not allow students to spend more than 2 percent of their classroom time taking mandated standardized tests and calls on Congress to enforce that cap.

Enforcing a test-taking cap would do little aside from limiting the time students spend filling in bubbles. Less time spent taking tests does not change the quality or the purposefulness of any standardized test, nor does it change how much classroom time is devoted to test preparation.

One of the most prevalent concerns of teachers is that standardized tests have hijacked their freedom in developing lesson plans. In a 2003 study by the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy, 44 percent of teachers reported spending more than 30 hours of classroom time during the school year preparing students for state-mandated exams. Thirteen percent said they spent 21–30 hours on test prep. Rather than engaging students in the exciting aspects of learning, teachers are forced to use valuable instruction time to teach test-taking strategies, such as process of elimination and correctly filling in a bubble.

The extensive cooperation and communication proposed in the plan among the Department of Education, states and school districts is important to reducing over-testing and moving forward in the future. However, most of the Testing Action Plan does not have any immediate impact on school districts and states that do not prioritize addressing over-testing.

The plan outlines several states and school districts that have previously taken the initiative to go beyond standardized testing to assess achievements by both teachers and students. Two counties in Florida have drastically eliminated redundant testing. In Tennessee, some school districts have incorporated portfolios as a mechanism to measure student growth and learning. Educators in Massachusetts are assessed using a matrix evaluation system incorporating—but not solely focused on—student learning.

Increasing funding through the Testing Action Plan is important to ensure all school districts across America have the opportunity to retool their evaluation systems. However, education policymakers should be diligent in ensuring that testing is necessary, purposeful and avoids redundancy and that it allows teachers more freedom with curricula and students the opportunity to enjoy learning.