Testing, One, Two…. The United States Department of Education’s New Plan For Standardized Testing

This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of the CABE Journal.

LR-PencilDramatically reversing its prior position on standardized testing, the federal government has concluded that perhaps it has been subjecting public school students to too much of it. On October 24, 2015, the United States Department of Education, or “DOE,” issued a ten-page “Testing Action Plan,” or “TAP,” summarizing its new perspective on assessments as follows: “In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students.” In government-speak, the TAP would undoubtedly be characterized as little more than a “mid-course correction.” For school boards that have been enduring both the imposition of Common Core testing and sometimes feverish opposition, however, the Department’s abrupt change in direction could cause a kind of pedagogical whiplash.

Perhaps inspired by William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” my father used to note that it was not the size of the dog, but rather the size of the fight in the dog that mattered, and the DOE appears to be contemplating an analogous approach to standardized testing. For example, while the federal government is not seeking to eliminate testing altogether, it is seeking to ensure that “no child spends more than 2 percent of her classroom time taking these tests.” Within those narrower temporal confines, the DOE contemplates a better and more meaningful assessment tool that flows naturally from the relevant grade-level curriculum rather than forcing districts to divert from courses of study in order to teach to the test.

The TAP stresses the importance of districts keeping parents apprised of the purpose of the standardized testing as well as when the results will be available and how they will be used both to assist the individual student and to guide the district’s educational programming. Of particular note, the TAP emphasizes the concept of “flexibility” in the context of standardized testing, stating that the DOE would “invite” states to request waivers of federal rules that “stand in the way of innovative approaches to testing.” In conjunction with those waivers, the DOE would work with states “to promote high-quality . . . statewide measures.” As an example, the TAP references a “competency-based assessment” that New Hampshire is currently piloting in four districts and for which it received a DOE waiver.

In addition to this technical assistance, the TAP references President Obama’s proposed budget for the 2016 Fiscal Year, specifically $403 million that is designed “to support the effective implementation of assessments that are aligned to college and career-ready standards.” Of this amount, $25 million would be set aside to support competitive projects designed to encourage states to develop “innovative, new assessment models” and to assist with their implementation. As such, this suggests the application of a “Race for the Top” approach to more effective forms of standardized testing.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of the DOE’s new approach is reflected in the discussion of New Hampshire’s pilot program, which, the TAP notes “allowed the state to give students locally developed tests – in lieu of the statewide standardized test – that will assess students’ progress based on their ability to apply what they know through a series of complex, multi-part tasks.” A possible recalibration of Connecticut’s traditional state-driven and, more recently, nationally sourced standardized testing, thereby allowing local and regional boards of education to have more direct say in the elements of its students’ standardized testing could be seismic. Although such testing at the strictly local level might ultimately prove to have limited efficacy, the TAP’s contemplation of new testing paradigms that depart from rigid national norms may usher in an era in which standardized testing can be tailored to more meaningfully reflect and relate to local curricula.

It is important to remember that the TAP is but an outline of the DOE’s new perspective on standardized testing. By January 2016, however, the DOE promises that it “will provide clear guidance to all states and districts regarding what existing federal funds may be used for assessment audits and to support high-quality teaching and learning, and best practices for using testing as a learning tool.”