When fourth-grader Sydney Smoot made her opposition to the Florida State Assessment known to the Hernando County, Florida, school board last month, she became an online sensation. The YouTube video of her impassioned speech has garnered almost a million views.
While the 9-year-old was voicing her opposition to testing, she offered a constructive suggestion for standardized testing that lawmakers in Washington, D.C., would do well to incorporate into federal education law.
“Why are we taking most of the year stressing and prepping for one test at the end of the year when we should be taking tests throughout the year that really measure our abilities?” she told the board. “My opinion is, we should take a test at the beginning of the year, middle and end of the school year to accurately measure what we know.”
The suggestion rings especially true as Maine students take the new Smarter Balanced test this spring that has the capacity to serve schools as more than simply a test administered once a year for accountability purposes.
At the same time, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and Patty Murray, D-Washington, are preparing to unveil their bipartisan proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — the overarching federal law governing school accountability and billions of dollars in funding.
The traditional standardized testing model offers little of direct use to classroom teachers, and the first year of Smarter Balanced testing is adhering to that model. That’s something Alexander and Murray should aim to change.
Testing that happens all at once toward the end of the school year offers teachers no real-time insight into their students’ English and math performance. As a result, teachers have no opportunity — as a result of the standardized test — to tailor their instruction during the academic year to ensure their students meet expectations.
Instead, teachers rely on other tests — specialized, computer-adaptive tests such as NWEA and aimsweb that school districts purchase — to get feedback on their students’ progress so they can adjust instruction accordingly. These tests add to the total instructional time students spend on testing.
In their proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Alexander and Murray should let school districts space out standardized testing throughout the school year so teachers can use the results in real time to change course if they have to so students learn the material.
Since the Smarter Balanced assessment is computer-adaptive, it can pinpoint students’ ability levels more easily and quickly than the traditional fill-in-the-bubble, paper and pencil assessments of the past. The computerized nature also generates results more quickly.
The benefit of letting school districts administer the tests on a more natural schedule lets them cut back on other tests they use to judge student performance and inform instruction. That, in turn, reduces the amount of instructional time devoted to testing.
Also in the vein of reducing time devoted to testing, Alexander and Murray should include a provision sponsored by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, that sets aside funding so states and school districts can audit their testing systems so they grasp the true scope of testing to which they’re subjecting students and can eliminate the testing that’s unnecessary.
States and school districts also should have the opportunity to continue innovating to improve their testing regimen. Four school districts in New Hampshire are doing just that over the next two years: They recently received federal approval to pilot a “performance assessment” that will allow students to show they’ve met English and math expectations through means other than a conventional test — a research paper or applied project, for example.
But the New Hampshire Department of Education had to work with federal officials for five years before getting the approval to simply test this new model. Maine Sen. Angus King is proposing an allowance in federal law that states exactly what states and districts need to do to experiment with new ways to test their students and still meet rigorous standards.
“We want to make it so, if you meet certain criteria, it happens,” King said.
Students, parents and teachers have voiced valid complaints about the current standardized testing regime, and many parents have been driven to opt their children out of testing. But testing serves a useful purpose, and the standardized tests schools are starting to use can become more useful and less burdensome.
Policymakers need only follow a Florida fourth-grader’s advice to make it happen.