Grade-Span Tests Are Not the Answer


By Ronak Shah

Desmond came up to me on his way out of my sixth-grade science class. He asked, "How come we don't learn social studies, Mr. Shah?"

I asked him what he meant, a bit confused. After all, I knew they were reading a historical-fiction novel set during the Middle Ages and were discussing what life was like in that time period.

"We don't have a social-studies class where we just learn about our history," he explained. "We spend all day reading and writing and doing math. When are we going to learn about history?" Then, before I could answer, Desmond added, "Is it because we don't have a test on it?"

I froze, a bit ashamed, because he was right. Social studies is tested on a grade-span cycle every two years, and this was an off year. Social-studies results also don't hurt a school's overall evaluation, so our schools aren't held accountable to them. When schools aren't held accountable to teaching certain content each year, we teach less of it and focus on what counts in our evaluation. When students aren't held accountable to learning this content each year, they learn less of it. So Desmond has two language-arts classes, two math classes, and no social-studies class.

Many parents, teachers, and lawmakers are rightly concerned about the amount of standardized tests students must take and how much time these tests sap from instruction. This has prompted a Senate proposal to move from annual testing to grade-span testing, where students would be assessed once every few years over multiple years of content. Unfortunately, grade-span testing would not solve our over-testing problem.

The majority of student testing does not come from the annual standardized test itself but from the extensive diagnostic, benchmarking, and interim assessments students take throughout the year. These tests are a product of the fear of the high stakes attached to the results of the annual assessment. Some students must take separate state-, district-, and school-level benchmarking assessments on top of their federally mandated annual tests. To prepare for just two end-of-year tests, my students spend an additional 40 hours taking such benchmarking assessments. No wonder they are so fatigued.

If grade-span testing were to replace annual testing, these additional assessments would not go away. On the contrary, the equally high stakes of grade-span tests would likely push schools and districts to conduct just as many, if not more, preparatory assessments to ensure that even students in non-tested grades are on track to pass the grade-span test when they reach it.

On the other hand, losing annual assessments means losing valuable data about our students. Only an annual test can show us as teachers how much our students grow in a particular subject year upon year; grade-span tests only tell us where a student is, not how far they've come. Moreover, annual testing has revealed the unacceptable disparity in educational opportunities between students in wealthy districts and low-income students of color, giving us as educators the urgency to combat the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Perhaps most frighteningly, it may become impossible to recruit talented teachers for high-stakes grade-span-tested years. Who would want to teach fifth grade if they were responsible not just for their own standards but for third- and fourth-grade content that their students may not have been taught?

A better solution than grade-span testing is moving away from the numerous, often-redundant local assessments toward a single, high-quality assessment with a streamlined benchmarking system. As a teacher, I crave clarity, consistency, and the certainty that our educational landscape won't change under my feet each year. A streamlined system would provide that. Educators like me also need reassurance that struggling students in struggling schools will be offered help. One reason that schools give so many benchmarking tests is the high stakes attached to student results, with few supports and little funding for struggling schools and districts. Title I dollars are a notable exception to this, and restructuring how this money gets to our kids could go a long way toward reducing over-testing by replacing test preparation with systematic supports for students.

Congress has the capacity to ensure a better future for our kids by reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with language that empowers schools to limit redundant benchmarking assessments, maintains annual standardized tests for third through eighth grade, and changes the stakes to offer more support to teachers serving students with the greatest needs. Keeping the assessments annual will help make sure that Desmond and all his classmates are taught at the same high level and held to the same high expectations that they deserve.

Ronak Shah is a seventh-grade life-sciences teacher at Tindley Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis. He is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.