National school leaders ask if it’s time to curb standardized testing

The average student in one of the country’s large, urban school districts will take 113 standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and 12th grade, according to responses to a survey by the Council of Great City Schools.

That survey was the first part of what could be an effort to cut down on the number of standardized tests schools are required to give.

Today, the Council of Great City Schools and the Council of Chief State School Officers announced what they’re calling their ‘commitments to high-quality assessments.’ Those commitments come after school districts across Florida started the school year with votes in favor of a testing moratorium. Those votes were just part of growing national calls to pause, reform or end high-stakes testing.

The results of the Council of Great City Schools survey hint at what could be driving that discontent.

On average, the survey found, 11th graders take the most standardized tests in any given year. In one surveyed district, those students spent 27 days, or 15 percent of their school year, taking tests. That count didn’t include tests given in their classes or optional exams like the APs, SAT or ACT.

The average eighth grader spent a week taking tests outside of their normal classes.

In many districts, according to Michael Casserly, the Council of Great City Schools executive director, students take multiple tests that provide similar data but are required by different entities.

“It’s time that we step back and see whether the tail is wagging the dog,” he said.

Assessing students every year is important for determining how they’re progressing, said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. But, he added, students should only take the minimum number of tests needed to get the information educators need.

District of Columbia Public schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said she understands parents’ concerns about whether students are being overtested during a conference call.

She said school districts often “add lots of new initiatives without going back and abandoning initiatives that aren’t working anymore. So you get assessment build up and there’s not a lot of reflection about how many assessments are happening or how much time we’re spending.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has resisted calls to put high stakes testing on hold, but said he supports the groups’ efforts.

“In some places, tests -– and preparation for them –- are dominating the calendar and culture of schools and causing undue stress for students and educators” he said in a written statement. “I welcome the action announced today by state and district leaders, which will bring new energy and focus to improving assessment of student learning.”

Next steps for the high-quality testing initiative include further analyzing the Great City Schools survey results to find whether testing contributes to school and district improvement and identify tests that can be eliminated, publishing state lists of tests students are required to take and reviewing existing state-level tests for quality and whether they are in line with state curriculum standards.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.