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Feds now agree: Too much testing in U.S. schools. But states and districts mandate most tests.

Stung by mounting criticisms it was contributing to the over-testing of American students, the federal government released new guidelines this weekend calling for common sense in testing and a limit on time given over to exams.

In its new Testing Action Plan , the U.S. Department of Education said tests should be “worth taking, fair and time-limited.” The action plan recommends states devote no more than 2 percent of classroom time to taking mandated tests.

It doesn't appear schools are too far off that mark.

A study by the Council of Great City Schools , released in tandem with the USDOE action plan, found, “... the amount of time students spend taking mandatory tests constitutes a surprisingly low percentage (2.34 percent) of the overall time they spend in school given the amount of controversy this issue has generated. At the same time, there are clearly a considerable number of tests, and these tests often pile up at critical points during the school year. But how much is too much, and where is this tipping point?”

The USDOE also cautioned against relying too much on test results to judge students, teachers or schools, stating:  “Assessments provide critical information about student learning, but no single assessment should ever be the sole factor in making an educational decision about a student, an educator, or a school. Information from sources such as school assignments, portfolios, and projects can help measure a student’s academic performance.”

The federal Testing Action Plan generally won praise even though most of the required testing occurs at the state and district level.

“We have continued to warn lawmakers about the over-use and over-emphasis of high-stakes standardized testing that has become toxic to our students," said Sid Chapman, president the Georgia Association of Educators. "The testing culture that has now become pervasive in public education has actually become a hindrance to our students actually learning their subject matter. Educators did not choose this profession to drill students in high-stakes testing.  They want to teach, accurately assess, and look for the light bulb to come on.”

Carmel Martin, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, said, “Through the Center for American Progress’ report ' Testing Overload in America’s Schools' released last fall, we documented there is an overemphasis on tests and test preparation in schools that does not put students first. Tests can provide important information for parents, teachers, and school leaders who need to know if students are on track to graduate from high school ready for college or career. But many students are simply tested too often, as frequently as twice per month and once per month on average. As we documented in our report, despite the widespread perception to the contrary, most standardized tests are required by states and school districts, not federal law. Although test administration takes a small fraction of learning time, tests have taken on outsized importance in schools and test preparation takes up valuable instruction time."

Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods said, “I am pleased that the President and U.S. Secretary of Education see what we at the state and local levels have seen for years: we test way too much. As I  stated early on in my term , we must balance accountability with responsibility. That is why several months ago I called for a testing audit to determine ways we could eliminate unnecessary testing at the state and local levels. In the days ahead, my team and I will look over this proposal and move forward with recommendations to provide relief from over-testing and over-burdensome accountability.”​

T he report by the Council of Great City Schools, an organization of the nation's largest urban public school systems, offers a lot of data on who is tested and when.

The report information is based on surveys of member districts, analysis of district testing calendars, interviews, and review and analysis of federal, state, and locally mandated assessments:

Among the findings:

•In the 2014-15 school year, 401 unique tests were administered across subjects in the 66 Great City School systems.

•Students in the 66 districts were required to take an average of 112.3 tests between pre-K and grade 12. (This number does not include optional tests, diagnostic tests for students with disabilities or English learners, school-developed or required tests, or teacher designed or developed tests.)

•The average student in these districts will typically take about eight standardized tests per year, e.g., two No Child Left Behind tests (reading and math), and three formative exams in two subjects per year.

•In the 2014-15 school year, students in the 66 urban school districts sat for tests more than 6,570 times. Some of these tests are administered to fulfill federal requirements under No Child Left Behind, NCLB waivers, or Race to the Top (RTT), while many others originate at the state and local levels. Others were optional.

•Testing pursuant to NCLB in grades three through eight and once in high school in reading and mathematics is universal across all cities. Science testing is also universal according to the grade bands specified in NCLB.

• Testing in grades PK-2 is less prevalent than in other grades, but survey results indicate that testing in these grades is common as well. These tests are required more by districts than by states, and they vary considerably across districts even within the same state.

•Middle school students are more likely than elementary school students to take tests in science, writing, technology, and end-of-course exams.

•The average amount of testing time devoted to mandated tests among eighth-grade students in the 2014-15 school year was approximately 4.22 days or 2.34 percent of school time. (Eighth grade was the grade in which testing time was the highest.) (This only counted time spent on tests that were required for all students in the eighth grade and does not include time to administer or prepare for testing, nor does it include sample, optional, and special-population testing.)

•There is no correlation between the amount of mandated testing time and the reading and math scores in grades four and eight on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

•Test burden is particularly high at the high-school level, although much of this testing is optional or is done only for students enrolled in special courses or programs. In addition to high school graduation assessments and optional college-entry exams, high school students take a number of other assessments that are often mandated by the state or required through NCLB waivers or Race to the Top provisions.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.