Test Smarter

By Jon Alfuth and Kate O'Connor

If you've walked into any public school in the last month, you've probably seen the signs of the testing season: bare walls, quiet hallways, groaning teachers and administrators, and yawning kids. It's become a national ritual in the nation's 99,000 public schools. But lately, testing season isn't just a season; it's a daily reality students and teachers face throughout the school year. Instead of helping students and teachers, it becomes an overwhelming endeavor that weighs everyone down. That's why we support the Support Making Assessments Reliable and Timely (SMART) Amendment, which Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) are offering as an amendment to the Senate's Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization, the Every Child Achieves Act.

For all its faults, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) allowed the public to see the widening gap between groups of students. It laid bare the inequity in our public schools throughout the country and across race and income and made it difficult for the general public to ignore the injustices in our system. Even when testing is inconvenient, teachers know that we need to continue to use the data from the tests to make essential changes to our school systems and public service programs. Moreover, standardized tests provide a necessary accountability for school districts and local education agencies, as well as a yardstick to measure progress.

Teachers also know that tests that are well aligned to state standards with results that are reported in a timely manner can help us focus our teaching and analyze where to make changes in curriculum and instructional practices from year to year. For example, I (Jon) teach geometry, which aligns closely to the American College Testing (ACT). We take three to four mock ACT math assessments during the year, and I use the data from these assessments to determine if I'm pushing my students to the appropriate level of rigor and adjust accordingly.

While yearly testing provides valuable information to the public and to teachers, too much testing overwhelms these benefits. The pressure of high-stakes testing has caused states and districts to mandate standardized testing throughout the year. It is not rare, particularly in low-performing districts, for students across grade levels to sit for tests as many as 12 times a year across subjects. For example, in Jon's district, his freshmen students had to sit for four different locally and state-mandated assessments in Algebra I alone. That doesn't even include the additional assessments in other tested subjects like English and biology that are required by the state and district.

These tests eat up valuable instructional time and are not essential for improving the quality of instruction students receive. Many tests are low-quality or do not provide data that is useful to educators. Well-intentioned teachers and administrators are flooded with redundant or, worst of all, contradictory data that are not having a meaningful impact on teaching and learning.

Additionally, many states and districts go beyond the required number of tests. In Tennessee, for example, we test significantly more in high school than the federal law requires. In our local district, we also test using several "formative" assessments each year to track student progress. That would be OK if the tests were high-quality, but too frequently they are not. All of this culminates in 10 to 15 lost days a year, which amounts to an entire unit. This lack of instructional time impacts student learning, and therefore we believe these unnecessary tests should be eliminated to give teachers more time to do what we love: teach.

The SMART Amendment will provide states with the resources to inventory the tests that they are giving so that they can make informed decisions about which assessment are high-quality and necessary and which are redundant or otherwise nonessential. It also encourages districts to analyze the amount of time that teachers are dedicating specifically to test prep, a ubiquitous trend in education. As a result, states would create plans for reducing unnecessary tests but would preserve the federal annual assessments that serve a crucial role in helping us visualize the achievement gap so that we as teachers can work to close it. In the end, this legislation will help to eliminate redundant or low-quality tests, freeing up valuable time for teaching and learning.

Annual testing is valuable, but students deserve a system that protects them from unnecessary, redundant tests. Congress should ensure that the SMART Act is included in the final ESEA bill that it sends to the president, because this will make us all smarter educators and give us additional time to make our students learn smarter.

Jon Alfuth is a high school geometry teacher at the Soulsville Charter School in Memphis, Tennessee, and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow. Kate O'Connor is a third grade teacher at E.L. Haynes Public School in Washington, D.C., and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.