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Testing Overload in America’s Schools

January 14, 2015

Photo courtesy of Judy Baxter via Flickr
By Melissa Lazaín

In August, when the Lee County School Board in Southwest Florida voted 3-2 to opt out of the state’s mandated tests tied to the Common Core State Standards due to concerns about the overtesting of students, a packed room of opt-out supporters and parents erupted in cheers.

As unpopular as Florida’s mandated tests are in many quarters, the state’s tests are not the sole culprit. A local newspaper’s analysis of the tests given by the Lee County schools found that 52 percent of the assessments that students take are district mandated, while less than half are state required. In other words, overtesting in Lee County might not be only a state and federal problem but a local problem as well.

The Lee County vote, which was later rescinded due to concerns that the decision could place the district in violation of state law and risk losing funding, highlights how the issues of overtesting and the way in which tests results will be used have become more and more controversial in recent months.

New, more rigorous tests that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards—which serve as guideposts for what students in grades K-12 should know in reading and math—will be administered broadly this school year. The prospect of this expanded rollout has spawned growing concern among teachers over how the results will be used to evaluate teacher and school performance. At the same time, the new tests have generated hope among advocates that the low-quality, fill-in-the-bubble tests that states currently use, and the added assessments that districts require to compensate for them, will finally become a thing of the past.

This spring saw a wave of so-called opt-out efforts from Colorado to Illinois where parents sought to keep their children from taking standardized assessments. In New York, more than 550 principals signed a letter protesting the state’s tests. Some states have decided to stop administering the new Common Core tests, while others have chosen to walk away from using the Common Core standards altogether.

But the bigger question still looms: Are schools overtesting students?

A recent Purple Strategies poll commissioned by the Center for American Progress found that 49 percent of parents think there is too much standardized testing in schools. But in an apparent contradiction, three out of four parents think that it is important to regularly assess whether their children are on track to meet state academic goals, according to a poll conducted by the Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Support for regular assessment is even higher among Latino and black parents.

It appears that schools and families are at a crossroads when it comes to testing.

High-quality assessments generate rich data and can provide valuable information about student progress to teachers and parents, support accountability, promote high expectations, and encourage equity for students of color and low-income students. But it is important to acknowledge that for some children, testing exacts an emotional toll in the form of anxiety and stress. Therefore, the number of tests and/or the amount of time devoted to tests should be limited to the minimum amount needed to acquire critical information to improve student learning.

Moreover, it must be remembered that tests simply collect information and that they are only as valuable as the quality of the information collected and the way that information is utilized. Tests should not take center stage in the classroom, particularly at the expense of meaningful learning time. Schools should design assessment schedules, as well as overall schooling, in ways that maximize the learning experience and foster the positive development of students.

In undertaking this study, we had two goals: to obtain a better understanding of how much time students spend taking tests and to identify the degree to which the tests are mandated by districts or states. To that end, we focused on 14 districts—urban and suburban—in seven states during the 2013-14 school year. We examined district and state assessment calendars and supplemented that information with correspondence with school district and state central-office staff, along with other publicly available information. We used this information to identify the number and frequency of district and state-required standardized assessments for students by grade spans K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 and to determine the time it took for students to take the assessments. We sought to capture the average standardized testing experience of most K-12 students and therefore only included tests that either the state or district required of all students. This analysis did not include teacher-developed tests or test-preparation activities; as a consequence, it understates the amount of time and energy devoted to testing in these districts. Because our analysis included only a relatively small sample of districts, it may not reflect the testing experience of students or districts in other communities.

In addition, we interviewed several district and state education officials to better understand why they require certain assessments and the efforts underway to reduce the amount of testing in schools. A number of these efforts are highlighted in my accompanying report (see below).

Used properly, high-quality assessments can be a valuable tool for teachers to determine where students are struggling, for parents to understand their children’s progress and knowledge gaps, and for policymakers and advocates who need assurance that all students are receiving a high-quality education. We simply need to get smarter about when, where and how we use them.

Ms. Lazaín is Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress, which authorized the reprinting of Ms. Lazaín's piece on LaborPress. Her report is available at 

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