Vail Daily column: A path forward for tests
Last week, I wrote about some of the significant changes in the education policy landscape at the state and federal level which may result in some reduction in the number of mandated and standardized accountability tests that Colorado students are required to take.
In this column, I’ll discuss the theoretical framework (or big ideas) that led us into the testing system we currently have and I will suggest a path forward for policy makers in Colorado to consider.
Testing in Colorado (and across the country) is primarily driven by the federal education law, No Child Left Behind. As a minimum, No Child Left Behind requires reading and math testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school. No Child Left Behind also requires science testing, once each at elementary, middle school and high school. The law also requires additional testing for students who are learning English.
No Child Left Behind is all about accountability. Specifically (in an educational sense), that means testing all students in core content areas (like reading, math and science), publishing the results, and then either rewarding or (more commonly) punishing schools and districts based on the results.
Rooted deeply in this accountability mindset is the belief that we must test, and test frequently, in order to ensure that all students are taught to high academic standards.
A great deal of pressure to maintain (or even increase) the level of testing and accountability we have in schools today actually comes from groups who advocate for minority groups — who believe that without these tests, their students will be deprived from access to a high quality curriculum and services.
However, we should critically examine if this underlying rationale of “testing ensures instruction to high standards” actually holds water.
As a predictor of testing outcomes, inequity is among the strongest predictors of student performance in the United States as compared to other countries. To put it another way, the achievement gap between disadvantaged and more affluent kids in the United States is among the largest in the world.
Comparatively, leading international systems test far less frequently than we do in the United States (and in Colorado), yet their achievement gaps are lower and their overall performance is higher.
This should call into question the belief and the assertions that either maintaining (or adding to) our current level of testing will actually result in increased outcomes for students.
The theory that testing yields improved academic performance just doesn’t seem to hold water.
Going forward, lawmakers will need to do a two-step maneuver to reduce testing in Colorado.
First and in the short term, they can move to scale back testing to No Child Left Behind federal minimum levels. Colorado currently exceeds the federal minimum testing levels by nine tests (three social studies tests, and three grades of testing in reading and math at high school).
Also in the short term, lawmakers can require that tests given in Colorado be as brief as possible (while maintaining test validity and reliability) and they can provide funding and support to schools as we transition to an online testing environment during the next couple of years.
Moving to federal minimums is really as far as Colorado lawmakers will be able to go without putting federal education funding dollars in jeopardy. Congress has expressed a willingness to revise No Child Left Behind and to provide more flexibility to states to determine their own testing protocols. Colorado lawmakers can press their federal counterparts to come through with a redesigned federal law that would allow testing levels to fall to more appropriate levels.
In looking at high performing global systems, we tend to see testing happen only at key gateway transition points in a student’s career. For example, they tend to test once in elementary, once in middle school and then some kind of exit exam near completion of high school. Three testing points — instead of the blizzard of assessments we’ve built for Colorado’s kids. Should federal law be changed to allow for this kind of configuration, Colorado lawmakers should work toward that design.
Assessment and keeping track of student progress is important. We need to get much better at supporting testing that helps shape and improve day to day instruction — rather than sanctioned testing designed for public blaming and shaming of our schools.
Legislators should consider taking all of the dollars currently spent on large scale accountability tests and providing that to schools and districts for the purpose of building and using classroom-level tests that can actually help us shape teaching and learning to fit each student.
In the United States (and especially in Colorado) such a model seems so radically different. Yet, the implementation of it would actually make our system of testing more like the rest of the world.
I hope our legislators are listening to and hearing the voices of educators, parents and students from across the country — they are telling us the way forward.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.