CAP Report Calls for Better, Fairer and Fewer Standardized Tests

While ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act signed into law in December, removes some of the testing pressure from schools and districts, one organization believes the transition from federal influence to state influence would be an opportune time to reform student assessment in multiple ways. The Center for American Progress (CAP), a nonpartisan research and educational institute with a "progressive" bent, issued a 62-page report that lays out its vision for a "coherent, aligned assessment system" for American schools.

ESSA maintains testing requirements. All states must assess students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and the tests need to align with those states' college- and career-ready standards. But results will no longer be a primary factor in determining school accountability. The new education law also covers funding for states and districts to streamline their testing and audit their practices and eliminates any federal requirements to tie teacher performance to student test score improvements. States now have more autonomy in how school success is defined and how they can intervene for the lowest-performing schools.

As CAP notes in "Implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act," the changes introduced by ESSA may have reduced "the level of angst regarding testing among teachers and parents," but they won't "necessarily lead to better outcomes for students."

Over six months CAP researchers interviewed parents, teachers, administrators, advocates, assessment experts and policy leaders to understand how testing can better be applied to "the service of teaching and learning." While parents "generally" recognized the value of testing, the research revealed, they also want tests to be better.

Too few school systems, the researchers found, use tests that align with their curriculum or apply interim or formative tests appropriately at "key points" in the school year to gain insight into how well students are doing against grade-level standards. Likewise, the standardized tests can "halt or disrupt" classroom work for "weeks on end" and "create significant anxiety for both students and teachers." Results can take months to come back to the instructors and parents and therefore have little effect on student learning.

The CAP report offers summaries of four ways in which assessment is typically not being done right:

  • Public communication is "insufficient." Rarely are parents or other school community members told why the testing is being done or how the results might be used. Frequently, when communication does occur, it emphasizes logistical matters, such as when the test will occur.
  • There's a gap between the curriculum being used in the classroom and the content of the state summative assessments. The result is that teachers are confused about what topics to cover in their instruction.
  • Too much test preparation is taking place. During one part of CAP's research, the organization found that six in 10 parents reported a child undergoing some form of test prep; 15 percent of parents said their child was involved in test prep more than three times during the same period.
  • People think testing takes up more time than it actually does. Because testing windows are longer to accommodate school technology and logistical limitations, people have the impression that students are taking tests for much longer periods than they actually do.

With the new report CAP is advising states, districts and schools to reboot their assessment practices as they make the transition to ESSA in order to create systems "of better, fairer and fewer tests."

At the state level, CAP offered seven recommendations:

  • To develop an assessment philosophy. These would be principles created with input from assessment experts, parents and teachers, as well as the students themselves, that lays out a vision and goals for testing "that is simple, intentional and supports strong and thoughtful school accountability systems."
  • To regularly conduct alignment studies to map cohesion between assessments and what students are learning. As the report explained, the studies "should be executed up and down the school system so that the states know that teachers are teaching to the standards and that the tests are actually measuring what composes the standards."
  • To support districts in selecting the formative or interim tests they adopt, by helping to review the options and offering information about their quality and alignment and by giving professional development to help district leaders make better decisions.
  • To "demand" that assessment results are turned around faster. CAP said that if SAT results can come back within weeks, receipt of summative assessment results could surely be sped up too. That might just require putting more pressure on the testing companies for faster turnaround, the researchers suggested. The norm they'd offer: a policy of two months or less.
  • To begin using state assessments as the college placement exam and to use the college entrance exams as a replacement for the high school proficiency test. The key here, the report said, was that states will have to make sure the tests align with state high school standards. They should also consider rewarding students with scholarships or other forms of recognition when they do well to help them "find value in the tests."
  • To participate in a new United States Department of Education pilot program that promotes development of innovative testing practices. Referenced in ESSA, this program will allow seven states to try out new forms of assessments in a few districts before rolling them out statewide.
  • To improve the communication tools used for reporting related to testing, including helping people better understand how to interpret the test results and helping schools and districts better communicate the results of testing to their parents.

The report offered five recommendations for school districts:

  • To eliminate overlapping tests after performing an audit of their assessments. CAP also suggested that standardized tests for kindergarten through grade 2 be dumped altogether and replaced by other mechanisms for screening the youngest learners to make sure they're "on track."
  • To deliver more professional development to teachers to help them understand how best to use the data coming out of new assessments. Also, the report advised, school leaders need to develop their skills in communication, particularly as it relates to covering the subject of testing with parents and teachers.
  • To rework formative and other interim tests to be "more robust and better aligned" to the state's academic content standards, curriculum and summative assessments.
  • To communicate more effectively with families about testing--beyond "more than robocalls urging parents to give their children a good breakfast." Among the communications suggested are the development and sharing of online testing calendars, overviews of the assessment system, sample testing items and explanations about how the assessment results will be used for student learning.
  • To improve testing logistics. Where schools have only a single computer lab, the report stated, districts need to consider setting up mobile labs or teaming up with community organizations to gain access to more computers and making sure the ones that will be used function properly.

The report offered four recommendations for schools:

  • To make the assessment process "as convenient and pleasant as possible for children." That includes giving bathroom breaks and not assigning student support staff (such as school counselors) to act as testing coordinators.
  • To hold communications events, such as "explain the test" nights to answer parent questions.
  • To work with teachers about how to communicate with parents about the testing, since they're frequently the first person a family goes to with questions related to the activity.
  • To stop "unnecessary" preparation for testing. While it's important to make sure students are familiar with the testing environment and the types of questions they'll face, the researchers acknowledged, no school needs to hold "pep rallies" or other activities related to the assessments that put undue pressure on the students.

CAP doesn't want to see the Department of Education relinquish total responsibility to the states for assessment activities in the country. As the report laid out, the department should "regulate" the inclusion in state Title I plans how they will align their formative and other interim tests with their state academic standards, streamline their testing regimes at the district level and ensure that better communication about testing is taking place with students and family. CAP would also like to see ED "provide strong technical assistance" and support to states pursuing the assessment pilot program and do a better job of spreading "best practice" related to assessment.

"In this new vision for testing," the researchers explained, "an effective assessment system will routinely evaluate student knowledge and skills through formative and interim assessments that provide timely and actionable feedback to teachers and parents, culminating in a summative test that helps to determine whether students are meeting grade-level standards and making progress."

Throughout, alignment among the assessments and academic standards "is key." "Simply put," the report concluded, "how well students perform on a summative test should not be a surprise."

The report is available on the CAP site here.