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Four ways to reduce testing and maintain accountability

• Mike Thomas

Do K-12 students take too many tests?

That’s what President Obama surmised last month when he proposed limiting the amount of time children spend taking tests to less than 2 percent of their classroom instruction time.

Yet, at the same time, the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) recently issued a report that examined 66 of the nation’s biggest school districts and concluded that 8th graders spend 2.3 percent of their classroom time taking tests. Eighth graders generally bear the biggest testing burden.

That is a national average with the time spent in each state – and within each district – varying.

A similar analysis done for the Foundation for Excellence in Education by Bellwether Education Partners looked at state-required testing data from 18 states. It found that in more than half of them, testing took up less than one percent of classroom time.

The range went from only a half-percent in Alabama and Alaska to 1.7 percent in Louisiana.

What explains the difference? The CGCS report included testing required by local school districts, whereas the Bellwether report looked only at tests required by the states and federal government.

This indicates there is no need for a major federal initiative to bring testing in line with Obama’s somewhat arbitrary 2 percent goal. Not only can states address this on their own, some already started the process well before Obama’s announcement.

Fortunately for our students, these state efforts are focused on ensuring that each assessment given to a child adds value to his or her education and measures the critical thinking skills that children are going to need for success in the 21st century.

In Florida, for example, school districts have eliminated hundreds of tests they once required.

A task force in Colorado and the Department of Education in Ohio have produced recommendations for reducing tests in those states.

We expect this effort to gain momentum.

The following are some suggestions and strategies that states and districts can consider when evaluating their own testing regimens:

1.) Streamline state testing requirements by eliminating duplicative, low-quality or unnecessary tests.

  • Evaluate the quality of all state tests and remove/replace any tests deemed low-quality. Tests should focus on depth of knowledge. Tests should require students to show their work, to demonstrate through short answers or gridded responses that they really do understand what is being asked of them.
  • Remove unnecessary or duplicative assessments. In your state, schools may be using multiple tests that produce similar information rather than using one test for multiple purposes.  For example, in Florida, students with low performance on the state English and Algebra I tests are required to take the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT) to determine if the students are in need of remediation. Instead of using the PERT, Florida could use the current state tests to determine if additional instruction is necessary, therefore eliminating one unnecessary test. By examining the multiple ways to use assessments, states should be able to eliminate unnecessary or duplicative tests.

2.) Reduce the number of required tests by minimizing district required tests that are over and above state requirements.

  • Provide a state grant opportunity designed to support local efforts to eliminate low-quality, outdated and duplicative tests. The grant opportunity would require districts to put together an assessment reduction strategy. Using the grant, encourage districts to take a constructive view of their assessment practices that focuses on the impact each test has on teaching and learning.  The grant could provide an assessment inventory tool (e.g. Achieve’s Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts) to support districts with the assessment analysis process.  Connecticut took this approach through the Assessment Reduction Grant and provided grants for districts to conduct assessment inventories over a 3-6 month time frame.

3.) Require all results from state and district-wide tests to be provided to teachers in a clear format and within a useful timeframe.

  • Require results of tests used to inform instruction to be returned to teachers in a timely manner, if not immediately, so that the teacher can use the results to meet the students’ immediate educational needs.
  • Require state end-of-year tests to be returned to teachers, parents and students in a timely manner, so that important educational decisions can be made (e.g., school choice determinations or promotion decisions) to benefit the child.
  • Require the use of online assessment systems once the digital infrastructure is in place and the necessary hardware has been acquired. Online administration allows for expanded teaching time, while getting results back quickly to parents, teachers and schools.

4.) Require the state and districts to provide clear, transparent information to educators and parents on the number, nature, source, and purpose of all tests that are administered to students.

  • Require the state and all districts to publish a grade-by-grade testing schedule that clearly labels the source of each test given, who it is administered to, the time it takes to administer, and the reason it is given.

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at