Editorial: “Federal Testing Law Flunks Common-Sense Test”

This Billings Gazette opinion was originally published June 7, 2015 

“Last week, the Wyoming Legislature’s education accountability committee voted to ask its Congressional delegation to reduce the frequency of testing required by federal law.

Wyoming lawmakers “argue the adequate yearly progress requirement has led to too much testing and cheating,” according to the Casper Star-Tribune.

In April, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a former high school music teacher, introduced a bill to replace the No Child Left Behind Act testing mandate with fewer federal tests.

Some Montana educators, including the School Administrators of Montana and Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, have endorsed Tester’s proposal.

“His bill would take us back to one test in elementary school, one in middle school and one in high school,” Juneau said. “It would reduce the burden of testing on schools.”

“Moving away from the practice of annually ‘teaching to the test; will empower educators to provide instruction in a way that best inspires and prepares our Nation’s next generation of leaders,” Tester’s bill says.

NCLB has required that all public schools administer standardized tests in language, math and science to at least 95 percent of students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10.

Students at Poly Drive Elementary call it “the monster test.” It is designed to measure the school district’s performance.

Before NCLB was enacted in 2001, federal law required testing only in grades 4, 8 and 11.

Not only did the number of students tested annually more than double with NCLB, the requirement to test 95 percent of all students means that schools must schedule make-up exams. The law also required standardized testing for special education students, even those with severe disabilities. Alternative tests had to be developed and administered to those children.

Because schools could be sanctioned with more requirements or a loss of federal funding if their test scores failed to meet ever-higher federal standards, schools started spending a lot of time “teaching to the test.”

As a result, Billings Public Schools introduced “early outs” for students, with the rest of the day for teacher training on NCLB. The difficulty of scheduling all federally mandated tests was a factor in the demise of the district’s weeklong spring break. The law created additional expenses in testing and data collection that shifted money away from teacher salaries and classrooms.

Although NCLB put unnecessary mandates on states and local schools, it did some good. For example, by forcing states to separately report academic achievement of groups such as minority students, low-income students and special education students, the law raised awareness of disparities.

The state of Montana doesn’t mandate any testing, except what federal law requires, Juneau said. All other testing decisions in Montana public schools are up to the local school boards.

The U.S. Senate education committee recently gave unanimous approval to a long-delayed reauthorization of NCLB with changes to provide states more control and more flexibility in meeting federal standards.

It may be difficult to amend that committee bill to reduce the frequency of mandated federal tests. But Tester’s proposal definitely is consistent with making the federal law less burdensome, while still holding schools accountable by shining a light on academic outcomes.

Congress should update NCLB this year, and reduce its cost by recognizing that too much standardized testing has reduced resources for learning.

In Montana, the Office of Public Instruction has improved its accountability in the past several years with more uniform data collection. More comparative information is available about graduation rates and academic progress. That information would still be collected and available to the public if NCLB testing was less frequent. School districts would still test students to assess their progress and individual educational needs. What would change is how much time and money is required to comply with a federal mandate.

As Juneau said, “We don’t have to keep measuring, we need to start looking at solutions and how to use the information we do have.””