Acting EdSec John King, Jr. Announces Guidance for Better Testing

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Acting U.S. Education Secretary John B King Jr. has announced new guidelines for state departments of education and local school districts to identify and eliminate low-quality assessments of students’ academic progress.

“Good assessments can be part of great learning experiences. But simplistic or poorly constructed tests just take away from critical learning time without providing useful information,” King said in a video announcement. “Despite good intentions, there are too many places around the country where the balance still isn’t quite right.”

Federal law requires that students take an annual test in math and reading between the third and eighth grade and once more sometime in high school. However, Anya Kamenetz of NPR reports that students in kindergarten through high school take an average of eight standardized tests a year. Moreover, the goals of these tests often diverged from measuring a student’s performance. Many of these tests were used for diagnostic purposes and as practice tests.

King’s announcement expands on a pledge made by President Obama in October 2015 to help schools better “audit” their testing programs and to eliminate redundancy and “low-quality” assessments through federal money. With federal support, schools may also decrease the time students spend taking examinations for more valuable classroom time.

“As a teacher, you know that information on your students’ progress is crucial to tailoring instruction to their specific needs and to understanding whether a lesson has worked. As a school leader, you need tools to ensure that every student is learning and to support the growth of your staff. And yet, in both roles, you’re also always seeking more opportunity for quality instruction time for your students,” King said.

The hope is not to do away with standardized tests. Rather, the goal is to have schools adopt strategies to provide a well-rounded picture of students’ performance. The Milwaukee Community Journal notes that King’s announcement sheds light on the innovative work already being done across the country to ensure high-quality, well-constructed assessments.

For example, a school district in Tulsa, Oklahoma has halved the time students spend on standardized tests by reducing their frequency, eliminating one, and refusing to implement others. NBC reports that Tennessee is also in the process of amending its test-taking procedures.

King also said that the Education Department has established “office hours” for any state or district interested in consulting with federal officials about how best to reduce testing time, design less-burdensome assessments and develop more streamlined processes. The Department has launched an outreach effort to offer technical assistance to school districts pursuing these goals.

In the 2016 budget proposed by President Obama, the White House included a $403 million allotment for states working to overhaul the way in which they design student assessments. In particular, money would be rewarded to states seeking to align their schools’ assessments with college and career-based standards; students would then gain the skills needed to succeed far beyond high school.

The Obama administration wants to see examinations “move beyond bubble tests” to “multiple measures,” including “writing, problem-solving, and critical thinking.”