High Stakes Testing
Although long a part of the American education system, the use of standardized tests began to rapidly accelerate following the implementation in 2002 of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. This law mandated annual standardized testing in all 50 states in reading and math (and later science) and required schools to raise scores every year or face penalties as severe as school closings (hence, the term “high stakes testing”). In fact, NCLB demanded that, by the year 2014, 100% of US students be "proficient" on state reading and math tests.
NCLB was followed, in 2009, by the federal Race to the Top program, which allowed states to compete for $4.35 billion in additional federal funding based on the strength of their students’ test scores. Unlike NCLB, which held only schools and school systems accountable for low scores, Race to the Top holds individual teachers accountable also. States have been encouraged, through the use of federal grant money (and private dollars), to create data systems linking the high stakes test scores of individual students to individual teachers.
These scores are used to reward “effective” teachers and to either support or penalize “ineffective” teachers. In recent years, following the dictates of these federal programs, many states have redesigned their teacher-evaluation policies to make students’ test scores an increasingly significant factor in the evaluation process. Until the 2016 legislative session Georgia, for example, required that students’ test scores count for 50 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation. That was a direct result of NCLB and Race to the Top requirements. In 2010 Georgia received $400 million in Race to the Top money, based on an application which included the creation of new teacher (TKES) and leader (LEKS) assessment systems. In addition, Georgia sought and received a waiver from NCLB’s 100% proficiency requirement agreeing, in exchange, to tie teacher evaluations to test scores. Thus, in 2013 the Georgia legislature passed a bill requiring those test scores to be 50 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation.
During the 2016 legislative session, PEMGA and other education advocates worked with legislators to reduce the impact of testing on Georgia's evaluation system. As a result of extensive collaboration, SB 364 was passed. Pursuant to this legislation, the weight of students' test scores was reduced and is now 30% for teachers and 40% for school leaders. In addition, the total number of state tests K-12 students must undergo was reduced from 32 to 24.
Public Education Matters Georgia continues to believe that the current over-reliance on high stakes testing, with its resulting “test and punish” policies, is undermining the quality of our public education system. The negative impact of this over-testing is multi-faceted. Here are just a few of the myriad of reasons we will continue to work to reduce the use and impact of standardized testing in Georgia.
1) One of the biggest problems with relying heavily on standardized test scores to gauge an individual teacher’s effectiveness is that this process assumes that the teacher is the largest factor affecting student performance when, in fact, this is absolutely not true. Annual student test scores reveal little, if anything, about the teacher in the classroom that year. Researchers note that many variables influence student scores on standardized tests, most notably the child’s socioeconomic status.
In analyzing the proportion of teacher influence, the American Statistical Association notes that teacher influence accounts for between 1 and 14 percent of variance in student test scores. Thus, between 86 and 99 percent of a student’s test score is out of the teacher’s control. It is inherently unfair, and does teachers a grave disservice, to evaluate them on factors out of their control. It is no wonder we are facing a critical teacher shortage.
2) Increased reliance on test scores, and the ever-growing number of standardized tests administered annually, forces educators to “teach to the test” - that is, to focus valuable instructional time on the topics that are most likely to be tested, or to spend this time prepping students for tests, rather than teaching them more valuable knowledge and skills. Critical thinking skills, for example, cannot be tested on a multiple-choice, standardized test and yet teachers’ time and ability to teach such “non-test items” has been severely curtailed as test prep takes center stage in the classroom.
To date, there has been no comprehensive examination in Georgia of the total number of instructional hours lost to test preparation and administration (which often necessitates schools shifting all students’ schedules to accommodate the testing of certain segments of the school, so that even if a particular student is not being tested, s/he loses instructional time). However, what is clear is that public school students are required to undergo multiple standardized tests in Georgia, including the new Georgia Milestones test (which replaced the CCRT) for core subjects; individual Student Learning Objectives assessments (SLOs), administered pre- and post-course, for non-Milestones-tested subjects; and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In addition to these tests which all students take, there are standardized tests for specific groups, such as English Language learners (Access for ELLs), kindergarten students (Georgia Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills, or GKIDS), and students being tested for placement in specific programs. The Georgia Department of Education’s web site outlines all the state assessments currently required for state purposes. It is important to note that individual school districts also require their own, different standardized tests for district evaluation purposes.
For a sobering look at the number of days Florida teachers have estimated are lost to testing, click here.
3) Testing tools are being misused when used primarily for teacher/school evaluations, instead of for student-centered diagnostics. The very timing of these tests shows this to be true. Most are administered at the end of a school year with the results typically not available until after a student has left the class. Thus, they are not being used to assess a student’s progress so that a teacher might use that information for that student’s benefit, but solely as data points for system evaluations.
4) The cost of testing is staggering and testing companies are getting rich off public dollars while our schools are being starved of funds. Since 2003, the Georgia General Assembly has underfunded public schools by $8.8 billion, cumulatively, by failing to fully fund its own education funding formula. While schools have had to deal with these monumental “austerity cuts” (resulting in teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, and reduced school calendars), the state has, at the same time, paid $108 million to CTB/McGraw-Hill for the recent development and administration of the new Milestones test. The dollars expended in the testing frenzy would be much better utilized at the school level.
Increasingly, people across the country are deciding that our students are being excessively tested. In the latest PDK/Gallup Poll of attitudes toward public schools (the longest running survey of Americans’ views on public education), the majority (64%) of Americans believe there is too much emphasis on standardized testing in public schools. In fact, poll respondents ranked standardized testing lower than all other options offered for measuring student progress.
In the past few years, this growing dissatisfaction with excessive testing has led to parents choosing to opt their children out of, or boycott, standardized testing linked to teacher/school evaluations. This grassroots “opt out” movement is gaining momentum, as parents across the country decide “enough is enough.” The largest number of “opt outs” to date has been in New York, where approximately 20 percent of students opted out of tests in the spring of 2015. This chart explains the rules concerning opting out in all 50 states. In Georgia, one resource for parents is a local group, Opt Out Georgia; another is Pact with Tact. Other national groups advocating for opting out include United Opt Out and Fair Test.