Testing isn’t always an accurate assessment

We all know that students take a lot of tests in school. Some tests are mandated by state and federal laws, others are for college admissions. Most are checkups on learning determined by individual school districts and teachers.

Unfortunately, there has been little data collected on how much testing actually goes on in America’s schools and how useful those tests are.

Until now.

I am chair of the Council of Great City Schools, an organization representing the nation’s largest public school systems, and we just released a new survey of testing in 66 urban public school districts. It is one of the most comprehensive ever and shows the extent of mandatory testing in our nation’s schools.

Here’s what we learned:

The average amount of time devoted to taking mandated tests during the 2014-15 school year was 2.3 percent of school time for the average student in eighth grade (The grade with the most mandated testing time).

Sometimes students take end-of-course exams alongside mandated tests in the same subjects, meaning students get tested more than once on the same thing. And almost half of the districts across the nation have to wait between two and four months before receiving their state test results — too late to be of optimal use for teachers.

Perhaps surprisingly, districts reported they spend less than one percent of their overall budgets on testing.

Finally, and most significantly, there’s no evidence that adding tests improves academic performance.

What we’re doing in The City

I’m happy to report the San Francisco Unified School District has been carefully looking at its district-mandated assessments to make sure they are not overkill, but more importantly that they give us information we can really use. Here are some ways we currently assess what our students are learning:

California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress: Last spring, our students embarked on the first state-mandated, online-only standardized tests. The questions are better at measuring what students know, and results are more detailed than the old fill-in-the-bubble sheets.

Interim assessments: The SFUSD uses robust “constructed response” tasks in math and English Language Arts a few times each year. These show us what students are able to do, and teachers use this information to adjust lessons as needed.

Integrated Writing Assessment: All students in grades 3, 6 and 9 take the Integrated Writing Assessment. The IWA shows us if students are reaching the Common Core State Standards for writing.

Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessments: These allow teachers to gauge a student’s reading level and choose texts that are “just right” for students and plan instruction. In the SFUSD, all students in transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, and grades 1 and 2 take them twice a year.

In the SFUSD, we want to be sure that any time we take for assessing student learning is time well spent. Test results should be used for reflection and growth and considered among many indicators of how well we are preparing students to compete and thrive in the 21st century.

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