Five Easy Steps to Improve School Testing

Five Easy Steps to Improve School Testing

In most public schools, the first hint of spring means that testing season is coming. Typically, these tests are neither fun to administer nor fun for students to take.

The new national K-12 education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA — tackles the problems with testing in a number of ways, and also creates new opportunities for innovation. However, to truly improve testing, there must be significant change at the state and district levels as well.

When my colleagues at the Center for American Progress and I looked into the backlash against testing in America, we found that parents don't want to eliminate tests from schools — but they do want tests to be useful and provide more value for their children. In our resulting report, we identified some key policy changes that states and districts can make to improve their assessment systems. While addressing the systemic problems with testing systems will take time, there are five key changes states and districts can implement now.

First, schools should improve communication. The only communication parents typically receive about tests is a robocall the night before instructing them to get their kids to bed early and to make a healthy breakfast, as well as a letter conveying logistical information such as when the test will occur. What parents want to know but rarely learn from their schools is why their children are taking the test, when they will get the results, and how those results will be used. Districts should create more effective communication tools and practices, such as in-person info sessions, that provide parents and teachers with more useful information about tests. Further, states should carefully design their score reports — which parents will most certainly read — to provide clear information about the results, what they mean, and how they will be used, as well as resources for parents who want to delve more deeply into their children's test scores.

Second, districts should get their technical ship in order. Long, disruptive testing windows are often the result of schools' having an insufficient number of computers to test all students simultaneously. As a result, schools have to cycle all students through a small computer lab. Districts should assess their capacity to test all students efficiently and with minimal disruption to normal school operations. Wherever capacity is lacking, districts should develop creative solutions, such as borrowing computers from local companies or forming strategic partnerships to acquire the necessary technology.

Third, states and districts should demand faster turnaround of test results. If parents and teachers are going to use the results to improve education, teachers need to get the test results back in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, it often takes months for test results to be returned, making the resulting information about student learning far less useful. The SAT and ACT deliver the results within weeks. Districts and states should expect to receive results no later than two months.

Fourth, districts should equip teachers with the tools necessary to interpret test results and use them to inform their instruction. A high-quality test can pinpoint precisely what students are struggling with, which, in turn, can help teachers adapt their instruction to meet those needs. Districts should train their teachers to interpret their students' test results and apply the findings to their instruction, and help teachers learn best practices for communicating with parents about the tests. Our study found that in many schools, teachers never even see their students' results. It's impossible to use information you don't have.

Finally, states and districts should ensure students are being tested on what they are being taught. A test that doesn't actually test what students are learning has little to no value to students, teachers, or parents. This misalignment encourages some teachers to spend valuable class time on prepping for tests that have little instructional value. Unfortunately, misaligned tests are all too common in classrooms across the country. States and districts should work together to determine how well the tests they give are aligned with state academic standards, get rid of ones that aren't aligned, and replace them with better ones where needed.

Very few students like taking tests, but the reality is that tests play a fundamental role in the learning process. Tests allow parents not only to see how well their children are doing, but also to evaluate the caliber of education throughout their schools. Tests also help teachers improve instruction by providing them with important information about what their students know and can do. Without high-quality tests, parents and teachers lack the necessary information to make decisions about their students' education. By making these important changes to their assessment systems, states and districts can eliminate unnecessary tests while increasing the value of the tests they administer.

Max Marchitello is a policy analyst for the Pre-K-12 Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

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