Testing: From the Mouths of Babes

by Guest Blogger
May 8th, 2014

“No one learns from state tests. It’s testing what you know. You’re not learning anything from it.”

 —12th grader

“I like math or spelling tests better [than state accountability tests] because you can study for them. For the [state accountability tests], I wonder what will be on them this time.”

 —5th grader

“I like pre- and post-tests because you get to see the progress you’ve made.”

—4th grader

Is it just me, or do these kids know a whole lot more about assessment and increasing educational achievement than most state and national policymakers? Far too many policymakers seem to have lost sight of the most important goal of assessment and accountability: increasing learning. They seem stuck on accountability for the sake of accountability, unwilling to ask whether assessment dollars could be used more effectively.

I’m not against accountability—and I think assessment is necessary—but I am for allocating time and money in the most effective ways. So I find these students’ thoughts, and the new study in which they appear, pretty compelling. The study is Make Assessment Matter, by the Northwest Evaluation Association in cooperation with Grunwald Associates LLC. It explores students’ (4th – 12th graders), teachers’, and administrators’ views on all sorts of testing—from classroom quizzes to state accountability tests. Conclusion: “There is an urgency felt on the part of students, teachers and district administrators to emphasize assessment for learning rather than for accountability. The overwhelming preference for all parties is that assessment results be used to inform learning.” Sadly, today’s state tests not only don’t inform learning, they seem to be impeding it: “teachers (70 percent) and district administrators (55 percent) … [say] that the focus on state accountability tests takes too much time away from learning.”

Think about the weeks that are lost to state accountability tests each year as you absorb these key findings:

On the one hand, the vast majority of students, boys and girls, say they try hard on most tests and care about doing well on tests, among other findings that indicate how seriously they take tests and learning. On the other hand, some boys (46 percent) and girls (39 percent) say that tests are a waste of time.

It’s clear that students feel that certain kinds of tests are not very relevant to their learning, and so it’s not surprising to hear some students identify tests as a waste of time. In tandem with other findings, the message is clear: students want high-quality, engaging assessments that are tightly connected to learning….

Like students, teachers and district administrators would prefer to focus on tests that inform student learning. Most teachers (54 percent), and the vast majority of district administrators (89 percent), say that the ideal focus of assessments should be frequently tracking student performance and providing daily or weekly feedback in the classroom. This sentiment tracks with students’ attitudes about tests. Students express overwhelming agreement that tests are important for helping them and their teachers know if they are making progress in their learning and for understanding what they are learning.

Teachers say that teacher-developed classroom tests, performance tasks and formative assessment practice work best for supporting student learning in their classrooms, while state accountability tests are the least effective.

For an assessment to matter, it has to be directly tied to what is being studied in the classroom. For students to care about it, they need to be able to study for it and use the results in meaningful ways.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

That sounds perfectly reasonable to me. So, what are the logical implications for states? I see two options. One is to use Advanced Placement as a model: create detailed, content-specific courses and develop tests that only assess material in the course. I know it’s unheard of in state accountability testing, but I am actually being so crazy as to say that states should test students on the topics, books, people, ideas, events, etc. that they have been taught.

If state policymakers can’t stomach the idea of specifying the content to teach and test—if they can’t honor students’ desire to be tested in ways that inform learning—then they must honor students’ desire to not have their time wasted: make the tests zero stakes with zero test prep (like NAEP). Any test that is not tied to the specific content being studied in the classroom is a test of general knowledge and skills. Such a test can provide an informative snapshot of students’ and schools’ relative performance (and thus which schools and communities are in need of added supports). It can’t, however, indicate how any one student acquired her knowledge and skills (could be the teacher, the tutor that mom hired in October, the soccer coach who demands higher grades, the new librarian in town, finally being given eyeglasses, etc.). And therefore it can’t offer any precise indication of either teacher quality or how the student could improve. If a state wants to give a test that measures general abilities and provides nothing more than a snapshot and a trend line, that’s fine—provided the stakes and the prep time are minimized.

My preference, obviously, is for option one—especially if states would have the good sense to involve hundreds of educators in developing the specific content to be taught and assessed. Not only would the state-controlled, culminating test be useful for learning, in preparing for it teachers could use effective practices like frequent quizzing on essential content.



  1. Using the AP Model makes perfect sense. And it appears to work. The content descriptions are concise and useful for students and parents as well as teachers. With the AP Model, teachers must have their unit and lesson plans approved before starting instruction. This ensures content-aligned classroom implementations. It seems like a simple and logical process. And, pedagogy is left to the teacher.

    Here’s my problem with state accountability assessments. The plan for CCSS implementation appears centered on state testing. The assessments provide a proxy for content specifications that the standards could not and did not provide. If the domains of the state assessments matched the scope and rigor intended by the CCSS, then teaching to the domain of the test would result in implementation of the standards. The problem is, we don’t exactly know the assessment domains.

    So, here’s a third option. States could make public their precise assessment content domains for each course and grade with cognitive levels. Assuming the assessments are aligned to the CCSS, this will allow assessment-aligned instruction which will be equivalent to CCSS-aligned instruction. The problem today is the presence of too many interpretations of standards-derived content and too little information about the assessment domains for any clarity of instructional objectives at the classroom level.

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — May 8, 2014 @ 12:29 pm

  2. Let me be linear in this instance.

    i) If the Test is valid for a grade level/course, let it be the grade for that subject; and let the item-by-item results be known to the student and to the teacher. That’s feedback for both and a learning experience.

    ii) If the Test is not valid, why any discussion?

    Comment by Ewaldoh — May 8, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

  3. I have honestly never seen as much testing as I have this current school year. Not only within our own school, but within my daughter’s school as well. It seems as if every single week she is coming home and telling me that she is taking a benchmark, or unit test, or a reading test for the next grade level. I am so concerned about these tests losing any and all value. How am I supposed to teach her essential study skills that are so needed in life, if she has a test every other day.
    As a teacher, I am frustrated because I am experiencing the same exact thing within my classroom. My students are not engaged, motivated, and some are just plain burnt out due to all of the testing. They do not value our lessons because they don’t know if they will be tested or not. I actually have students who consistently ask if this worksheet will be graded or “is this another assessment?” My students are burnt out and quite frankly, so am I!

    Comment by Kristen — May 21, 2014 @ 5:23 pm

  4. As an educator, testing students has become a huge deal. For my state and school district, money is involved as well as recognition. We test our students over and over again, but receive the same results. Those results have led to the governor and others making decisions like taking away teacher tenure, stopping Master’s pay, and adding pay for performance to the mix. However, with these new decisions that they thought were going to make education better; I believe it has made education worst, because many good teachers are leaving the field of education to go into other professions where they feel valued.

    Comment by Nita — May 25, 2014 @ 7:12 pm

  5. […] Patience is the hard part. Our high-stake accountability systems not only expect yearly gains, they reward bad practices. While drilling students in comprehension strategies can get a bump in scores, it will not lead to meaningful increases in literacy. Building broad knowledge (and thus broad vocabulary and the capacity to grasp dense texts) takes time. With a content-rich, sequential curriculum, schools can build the necessary knowledge over time. What they can’t do is show big yearly gains on tests that are not matched to their curriculum (which is a hazard of all state tests in which the topics of the passages are not revealed and thus can’t be studied). […]

    Pingback by No Excuses for Low Literacy | CUNY Institute for Education Policy — May 28, 2014 @ 5:42 pm

  6. I teach second grade, but I could not agree more. I feel as if I am testing students constantly, whether it be for the state, district, my building, our curriculum, or personal data. It is unfortunate how much time we devote to assessing students and how little time we are reflecting with them on their skills. My goal is to “find” more time to review their tests with them, so not only I know what they need to work on. I feel as if this will give my students more ownership of their learning.

    Our team devotes entire weeks to testing, where we take out the curriculum all week. I find this unfortunate, because many of the tests we are giving are not intended to benefit our students. Many times I see students frustrated or upset because they would rather learn than take another test. I often say they help me know how they are doing, but what good is that if they do not reflect on it as well. Students should be able to see growth or understand their abilities from assessments.

    Comment by Samantha — July 15, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

  7. Response to Kristen

    I too am feeling as if my students were becoming burnt out this year. This was hard to swallow, due to my students being seven and eight. At the beginning of the year the students were excited to show me what they knew through tests, but than it became a weekly occurrence, just like in your school. We have some math tests that are timed, and I had a parent tell me that her son cries about using a timer. I think that this causes himself much frustration and messes with his thinking process. His accuracy is less than 80% when a timer is being used and without the timer he is extremely accurate. I wish we could take a step back from all of the tests and focus on lessons. It is discouraging when we are not teaching multiple days, especially for tests that do not give us direct feedback, like state assessments.

    Comment by Samantha — July 20, 2014 @ 7:27 pm

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