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The testing cap: We must get ahead of potential unintended consequences.

The administration has taken an important first step in shining a light on challenges associated with over-testing in our nation's schools and by its honest reflection owning the federal government's role in shaping this current reality. This public acknowledgment creates a much needed opportunity for our country to get a better handle on testing as a lever to improve teaching and learning.

The most talked-about message from the “testing action plan” (NY Times article) is the administration’s decision to cap the amount of time allowed for testing each year in schools. This message, taken in isolation, is incomplete and potentially damaging. If we simply cap testing, when decisions need to be made about what to cut, which assessments are most likely to rise to the top? Assessments for school accountability, for teacher evaluation, or for informing instructional practice?

“The administration should ensure assessments designed to support teaching, not just evaluate it, take precedence.”

In January the administration needs to take an important next step: it should assert guidance on a balance of assessments that informs both accountability and instructional practice, and ensure assessments designed to support teaching, not just evaluate it, take precedence when we think about the composition of this cap. While all assessment types are important, only assessments designed to inform instruction help teachers answer the questions that support student learning—what did we learn? what’s next? and how do we get there?

Without this guidance, a well-intentioned move could have unintended consequences: We could wake up in the not-too-distant future finding that this cap led state and district leaders to cut the very assessments that matter most for day-to-day teaching and learning.

Here are some suggestions for the administration:

Strike a balance between instructional and accountability assessments as part of the 2% cap.
The administration should communicate that there should be a high percentage of assessments reserved to support teaching and learning to reinforce districts’ approach. Districts should then spend time auditing their current assessment strategy and deepening their understanding of the purpose and use of each assessment. Then, they will be able to make strategic decisions around the inclusion or exclusion of particular assessments and the percentage of time that should be carved out for each type of assessment.

Protect the use of instructional assessments from accountability and evaluation.
We have to draw a clear line between assessments for accountability and assessments for instruction, and avoid the trap of using an assessment for a different, unintended purpose as a way to reduce testing volume. Here’s why: In order to realize the benefits of assessment for instruction, teachers need to have time and space to engage in open, honest, vulnerable conversations, free from ideas of evaluation and accountability. The moment a state or district attempts to use instructional assessments to evaluate schools or teachers is the moment when there is a subtle but pronounced ripple effect on school culture. Educators will begin to defend their results, rather than engage in what they could learn from them.

Reduce the volume of accountability assessments.
Something has to give, and this is where we can reduce test volume. At the state level, assessments used to measure progress and impact—both the rate of a school’s improvement, and a teacher’s impact on student learning—should be designed in a way that provides information for these two different, but deeply connected purposes. Seems reasonable enough, but that’s not always the case. In an effort to ensure high expectations for all schools and to better understand school performance, the federal government mandated that states purchase end of year, summative assessments. More recently, in an effort to understand a teacher's impact on student learning, states purchased a different assessment to provide data for teacher evaluations. The result is a whirlwind of assessments that all serve the same overarching purpose. With well-designed accountability assessments, we can eliminate redundancy and limit the time students spend taking tests that do not inform day-to-day instruction.

We applaud the administration’s first step to address our nation’s over-testing challenge. Now we need guidance on the kinds of assessments states and districts should prioritize. Without this, the situation we face several years from now could be worse than the one we face today. 

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