The number of standardized tests U.S. public school students take has exploded in the past decade, with most schools requiring too many tests of dubious value, according to the first comprehensive survey of the nation’s largest school districts.
A typical student takes 112 mandated standardized tests between pre-kindergarten classes and 12th grade, a new Council of the Great City Schools study found. By contrast, most countries that outperform the U.S. on international exams test students three times during their school careers.
The heaviest testing load falls on the nation’s eighth-graders, who spend an average of 25.3 hours during the school year taking standardized tests, uniform exams required of all students in a particular grade or course of study. Testing affects even the youngest students, with the average pre-K class giving 4.1 standardized tests, the report found.
The study analyzed tests given in 66 urban districts in the 2014-2015 school year. It did not count quizzes or tests created by classroom teachers, and it did not address the amount of time schools devote to test preparation.
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It portrays a chock-a-block jumble, where tests have been layered upon tests under mandates from Congress, the U.S. Department of Education and state and local governments, many of which the study argues have questionable value to teachers and students. Testing companies that aggressively market new exams also share the blame, the study said.
“Everyone is culpable here,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “You’ve got multiple actors requiring, urging and encouraging a variety of tests for very different reasons that don’t necessarily add up to a clear picture of how our kids are doing. The result is an assessment system that’s not very intelligent and not coherent.”
Ahead of the study’s release, the U.S. Department of Education offered a mea culpa of sorts, issuing a 10-page guidance document to states and local districts that spells out ways to reduce redundant and low-quality testing. The department pledged to make money and staff available to help and promised to amend some of its policies.
“At the federal, state and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “We can and will work with states, districts and educators to help solve it.”
The council’s report adds fuel to the national debate about testing that has spurred various “opt out” movements among parents and students and has put growing political pressure on Congress and state legislatures to cut back.
In one of the most notable attempts to reduce testing, Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho earlier this year cut the number of district-created end-of-course exams from 300 to 10 and eliminated them entirely for elementary schools.
“I believe in accountability,” said Carvalho, who runs the country’s fourth-largest school district. “But fewer assessments of higher quality are better. . . . What we have now across the country is confusing, hard to navigate and, I believe, abusive of both teacher and student time.”
California eliminated its high school graduation test three weeks ago, joining Minnesota, Mississippi, Alaska, Rhode Island and South Carolina. Virginia has reduced its number of state-level tests, and Montgomery County, Md., last month put an end to its high school final exams.
Standardized testing has caused intense debate on Capitol Hill as lawmakers work to craft a replacement for No Child Left Behind. Testing critics tried unsuccessfully to erase the federal requirement that schools test in math and reading. Civil rights advocates pushed back, arguing that tests are an important safeguard for struggling students because publicly reported test scores illuminate the achievement gap between historically underserved students and their more affluent peers.
But even testing supporters agree about an overload.
“For those of us who support annual assessments, it doesn’t mean we support this craziness,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, an advocacy group focused on reducing the achievement gap. “There’s a clear problem here.”
The study found no correlation between the amount of testing in a district and the way its students perform on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal test given every two years that is the only consistent measure of student achievement across state lines.
“We can’t assess our way to academic excellence,” said Carvalho, of the Miami-Dade school system.
While public schools have been administering standardized tests for generations, the current buildup began after Congress passed No Child Left Behind in 2001 and required states to test all students in math and reading annually from third grade through eighth grade, and once in high school.
States that failed to make academic progress faced a series of consequences. States and districts responded by adding new tests during the school year to ensure students were on track.
“You prepare for the test to prepare for the test to prepare for the test,” said Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit organization critical of standardized testing.
OBAMA: GOVERNMENT AT FAULT, TOO
Addressing one of education’s most divisive issues, President Barack Obama on Saturday called for capping standardized testing at 2 percent of classroom time and said federal administrations share responsibility for turning tests into the be-all and end-all of American schools.
“Learning is about so much more than just filling in the right bubble,” Obama said in a video released on Facebook. “So we’re going to work with states, school districts, teachers, and parents to make sure that we’re not obsessing about testing.”
To drive the point home, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan plan an Oval Office meeting Monday with teachers and school officials working to reduce testing time.
Obama cannot force states or districts to limit testing, which has drawn consternation from parents and teachers. But Obama directed the Education Department to make it easier for states to satisfy federal testing mandates, and he urged states and districts to use factors beyond testing to assess student performance.
Administration officials said that in many cases, testing is redundant, poorly aligned with curriculum or simply overkill. They said the administration supports legislative proposals to cap testing time on a federal level.
“There’s just a lot of testing going on, and it’s not always terribly useful,” Cecilia Munoz, the director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, said in an interview. “In the worst case, it can sap the joy and fun out of the classroom for students and for teachers.”
Central to the debate is Common Core, a set of universal, college-ready academic standards in reading and math developed by education officials in many states, including Idaho. The federal government doesn’t require Common Core, but the administration has backed it with money.