By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — If it’s springtime, it must be standardized testing time in schools across the country.
It’s also when the debate over whether students are inundated with too many tests becomes hot.
Experts say testing is up. Parents who want their children to skip the tests say their ranks are growing. Lawmakers say they’re hearing a loud message about too much unnecessary testing.
The Common Core, a set of tougher classroom standards adopted by more than 40 states, has further inflamed the critics.
But new legislation might change the school testing landscape.
Congress will debate education this spring as lawmakers attempt to rewrite No Child Left Behind, the law spelling out the federal role in public education. Passed in 2002, it mandated annual testing and attached severe consequences for schools whose test scores didn’t show enough progress.
A bipartisan agreement in the Senate on its update of the education bill might reduce the pressure to test. It gives states, not Washington, the job of ensuring that schools are doing good work and deciding what to do about those that aren’t.
The legislation “should produce fewer and more appropriate tests,” according to Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Patty Murray (D-WA), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
That’s still down the road. What’s new this year is that for the first time most states are using new computer-based tests that require more critical thinking.
What’s not are the complaints. Some parents worry that schools base their lesson plans on what the tests focus on. Poor test-takers are at a disadvantage. Critics say too much money is spent on testing. The consequences of failure can mean closed schools, lost jobs, and an impact on student progress.
“We need fewer, better, and fairer assessments,” Susie Morrison, chief education officer and deputy superintendent at the Illinois State Board of Education, said at a recent meeting of state school officials in Washington.
Parents deserve to know how their children are doing, she said. Tests also are needed to help reduce the large numbers of students who graduate from high school but need remedial classes before college.
But not all tests are equally valuable, she said: “Some assessments used by local districts can and should go away, in our opinion.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who wants to maintain the federal role of holding schools accountable for student growth through annual tests, nonetheless has said that students, parents, and teachers have a legitimate complaint where there’s too much testing or test preparation.
Under No Child Left Behind, schools were required to show “adequate yearly progress” or face outside intervention, which could result in school takeovers.
Waivers from the law’s requirements under the Obama administration came with conditions that schools base teacher evaluations partly on test scores.
“There’s always been a group of parents that don’t like testing,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education research center. “I think the reason it’s been brought to a rapid boil lately is because of these teacher evaluations.”
Tests that states require to measure progress in math and reading cover about 20 percent of teachers, Petrilli said. Many states have standardized tests in other subjects so that all teachers can be evaluated by the results.
“It’s not just the assessments that they actually take as part of the state assessment program, it’s the constant benchmarking and practice tests that take up a significant amount of students’ time,” said Scott Placek, president of the Texas Parents’ Educational Rights Network, a coalition of parents and attorneys that supports parents who don’t want their children to take the tests.
In North Carolina, the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Committee recommended ways to alleviate what it called the testing burden on the district level. It also found that the state had reduced the number of required end-of-course tests from ten to three in the past five years and had eliminated other state-required assessments.
Texas and Virginia passed laws that reduced the number of state-required tests.
In Florida, Rosemarie Jensen of Parkland, one of the national administrators of the United Opt Out movement, a group that opposes “test-centric educational practices,” said she’d seen big growth in the last year in the number of parents nationwide who’d been organizing in opposition to the tests and keeping their children from taking them.
In Florida, such groups have grown from a few to 26 this year. A map by Jensen’s group pinpoints parents who report they’ve refused to let their children take the tests. It shows them scattered nationwide.
“This is not a valid way to measure an entire child,” said Jensen, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher who’s the mother of two high school students. “None of this has anything to do with better education. This is about a lot of money being made on these tests, and on using the tests to grade schools and turn them over to charters and firing teachers and impacting their pay.”
In her own family, Jensen said, her son, a ninth-grader, is a good student but a poor test-taker. Her daughter, a senior, does well on tests.
“Her test scores can mask some not-so-good teachers,” she said. “My son’s make his teachers look bad, and they work so hard with him. That’s not fair.”
Debbie Veney, vice president of government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, an advocacy group that focuses on students of color and those from low-income families, said too many tests were redundant, not aligned to standards, or just not useful.
“However, are tests necessary? Absolutely,” she said. “We believe it’s not enough to simply see what performance levels are. You’ve got to be able to do something when performance levels aren’t where they need to be.”
Stu Silberman, a former school superintendent who’s executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonprofit group of advocates in Kentucky, said school districts must find a balance so that they could be accountable to the public without testing too much.
Silberman said he was a big believer in the informal tests teachers used all the time to see how students were doing, such as quizzes. These kinds of checks give teachers the clues they need to plan their lessons, he said.
But when tests get too formal, and too frequent, he said, “then it starts to feel like we’re doing too much.”
Photo: NCinDC via Flickr