Report: Standardized Testing Debate Should Focus on Local School Districts

A new report finds students on average spend less than 2 percent of the school year taking tests.

A new study found students typically spend less than 2 percent of the school year taking tests.

A new study found students typically spend less than 2 percent of the school year taking tests.

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Students and teachers spend significantly more time on school district-required tests, as opposed to federal and state mandated tests that often elicit cries of a fixation on rating and ranking school children, according to a new study from Teach Plus.

The study, released Wednesday, is the first to measure the time students spend taking tests, and the time teachers spend administering those tests. At the same time, the researchers also polled teachers on how test preparation affects instruction time, finding a much higher impact in younger grades. The researchers found that on average, students spend less than 2 percent of the school year on state and district tests for English and math, although the time was significantly less for kindergartners.

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The opening sentences of the report summarize the testing controversy well.

“No subject is more polarizing in education than testing,” the report says. “For some, test data is the essential ingredient of school improvement...For others, testing is thought to dominate instructional time leaving little time for anything else.”

Based on a sample of 12 urban school districts, the study found kindergarten students spend 2.1 hours taking state and district tests on English, and 1 hour on math each year, which equates to less than 1 percent of the school year, assuming the students are in full-day programs.

By comparison, students in third grade spend 9.9 hours on English testing and 6.7 hours on math testing, while seventh graders spend 10 and 6.9 hours on those subjects, respectively. Those totals both work out to about 1.7 percent of the school year.

For students in third and seventh grade, the researchers found there was a large disparity between different districts for how much time students spent taking tests. In Chicago, for example, third graders spent about 7.6 hours on required testing, while those in Cleveland spent 25. The different between low-test and high-test districts, the study says, could be more than three instructional days each year.

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Some education advocates have argued that the emphasis on school accountability in the form of testing, first widely popularized under the Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law, has been the downfall of both teachers and students. Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, said at a discussion Tuesday that no other high-performing nations put as much of an emphasis on standardized testing as the United States.

She pointed to student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, saying racial achievement gaps narrowed most significantly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, “not during this time of test, test, test.”

“There are so many things that we could be doing, that we’re not doing. Instead, we’re investing billions in measuring people,” Ravitch said. “I’m fearful that we are creating a society of limited opportunity. We are labeling children by their test scores, and limiting their possibilities.”

Interestingly, however, the Teach Plus researchers found that district-mandated tests often are more time-consuming than those required by the state. In Boston, third grade students spend 3.5 hours annually on state tests, compared with 12 hours on tests the school district requires.

And that testing time accumulates from year to year.

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When looking at student testing over time, the researchers found the typical student in a high-test district, such as Denver, will have 105 additional hours of time spent taking tests by eighth grade than a student in a low-test district, such as Chicago. Put another way, 105 hours drill down to 19 school days, or almost four weeks of school.

Still, those figures do not take into account the whole spectrum of time constraints students and teachers face when it comes to standardized testing.

Based on a poll of more than 300 teachers, the researchers found scattered results about the time pressures standardized tests put on instruction time. But a few themes, the study says, were present. Teachers said when assessments are done well, they can complement a teacher’s instruction and curriculum. But it’s when tests are not aligned well with standards and curricula that problems arise. Additionally, test preparation, they said, can take up a significant amount of instructional time.

One teacher said standardized tests – including instruction, review, scoring, planning and reassessments – take up more than 35 percent of instructional time each year.

“I would say overall we lose about 15-20 days of instruction to testing to statewide testing,” another said. “Another 20 days we are instructing, but it is focused on test prep.”

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To better address the pressures students and teachers face when it comes to standardized testing, the study authors suggest shifting the focus of the testing debate from a national level to a local level, as testing varies greatly from district to district. They also suggest streamlining testing in high-test districts and focusing on test content, rather than test time.

“The teacher comments make clear that when tests are properly used in conjunction with the curriculum, test appropriate standards, and are part of a teacher’s regular instructional practice, the amount of time allocated for testing becomes a less important factor,” the study says. “Debating time-on-testing, then, without a discussion of the test type and content misses the point.”

Updated on Feb. 11, 2014: This story has been updated to reflect revised data from Teach Plus.