Too Much Testing?

[Update: 5/8/15 added link to AP article “New standardized tests bring technical challenges, concern“]

One of the issues that is tangentially budget-related that needs to be addressed during this special session is that of high school graduation requirements and the assessments that we are asking our kids to take. We’ve gone through many changes over the past few years in our efforts to settle on a set of graduation requirements that work. In addition, we’re struggling to deal with one of the leftovers from the Bush administration, the “No Child Left Behind” act, which mandates a certain amount of testing.

Our goal is to ensure that students learn enough material in core subjects to be able to succeed in the 21st century, and to ensure that our schools are both offering a curriculum that leads to this level of accomplishment, but also focused on ensuring that all kids get there.

Graduation RequirementsCurrent graduation requirements can be found here. As you can see from this graphic snippet from the site, there are different requirements for every graduation class. This is because the State Board of Education (SBE) has a goal of not changing the requirements for a class once they start high school.

Washington is part of a multi-state consortium to develop the tests necessary to measure achievement of this level of knowledge and skill. Algebra is much the same in Minnesota as it is in Washington, and we save tens of millions (and get better tests) by sharing the development work with other states. There are two consortia. Ours is the “Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium” (SBAC). [UPDATE 5/8/15 AP Article on this issue.]

We are phasing in tests from SBAC, gradually replacing previous tests. At the time we agreed to be part of the SBAC we were partway through developing science end of course exams, and only had biology done. Right now, every kid in Washington has to take and pass the biology exam, but no other science test. This is seriously distorting curricula in our high schools. It will still be a few years until we have the SBAC science tests, so we have no intermediate solution.

The SBAC also measures a different level of skill and knowledge than our previous tests did. In the past we’ve been assessing “basic knowledge”, which in mathematics is somewhere between Algebra I and Algebra II. The SBAC measures a “career and college-ready” standard, which assumes more knowledge. The SBE was planning to use a lower cut score on the SBAC to measure the graduation requirement.

Since every grade has a different testing model, we administer a LOT of tests. This is making people crazy, and kids in the overlap grades will often have to take ALL the tests. This is bad, and wastes instructional time.

Several members have proposed alternatives. None of the alternatives have passed either chamber of the legislature, but some level of savings is assumed in the House budget. (One of the budget amendments that I voted against – I support a reduction in testing, but not complete de-linking of graduation from an objectively measured level of knowledge and skill.) The Senate assumes no change in the testing model. Neither of these positions is likely to prevail, and we need to find a middle ground.

I’m proposing the following:

  1. We eliminate the end-of-course exam in biology as a graduation requirement until we have a balanced and comprehensive science exam that has gone through piloting and schools have had a chance to adjust to it.
  2. We eliminate all required tests other than the smarter balanced ones.
  3. Students who reach the new career and college ready level in their junior year are good to go.
  4. Students who reach the prior graduation level, but not the new SBAC level, are required to take and pass an appropriate course in their senior year. It it’s math you need to take the next math class. In addition, we’re working on new “transition” classes that are specifically focused on helping students who are almost at the career and college ready level get there in their senior year, but these will not be ready for next year’s class in enough volume to cover everyone.
  5. There are lots of reasons why kids do poorly on a test. It can be an illness, something happening at home, etc. We currently provide a lot of alternative tests (like the SAT, ACT, etc.) they can take and scores than ensure a comparable level of knowledge and skill . We should add the community college placement test to this list as it’s readily available all over the state and very inexpensive.
  6. Students who achieve college credit (AP, IB, etc.) in a relevant class are deemed to have met the graduation requirement.

Of course, if students have already met one of the existing requirements they’re good to go. This would eliminate a lot of test administration and simplify graduation requirements for students. In particular, it would eliminate a testing alternative called “collections of evidence.” This is another option that’s distorting high school curricula and not adding a lot of value, but it is adding a lot of cost.

I’m working on a bill to do this and will see if we can find some middle ground.

Author: Ross

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.