Q: Last year, all our parent group did was gripe about tests, but nobody brings it up now. Our PTA president says that new laws have stopped mandatory testing. Aren't some tests necessary? How else will we know how our kids are doing?
A: While several trends have shifted the testing picture, your PTA president gets an "incomplete" on the topic. Annual tests are still required.
Here's what's changed. One: States and districts, responding to concerns from teachers and parents about over-testing, cut back on redundant exams. (One Florida district had given students 183 tests between kindergarten and seventh grade; only 17 were federally required.) Cutting back decreased the ongoing test prep that eats into instructional time.
Two: Some "opt-out" movements were fueled in part by efforts to tie teacher evaluations to test scores. Now that most states have uncoupled test scores and teacher accountability, there's less resistance to testing.
Three: Parents realize that the maxim "what gets tested, gets taught" shortchanges kids. Subjects such as social studies and the arts -- and hard-to-test social-emotional skills such as resilience, responsibility and self-regulation -- get less instructional time. Parents and teachers want to change that.
Four: There are big changes at the federal level. On Dec. 10, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing No Child Left Behind. ESSA passed with strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. It continues to mandate annual math and reading testing requirements for grades 3 though 8, and requires that schools annually report test scores and keep track of demographics including race, economic status and disabilities.
But states can now set their own goals and timelines on accountabliliy, subject to approval by the federal Deparment of Education. For example, states can decide how to weigh tests, how to evaluate teachers and how to sanction schools where students don't graduate on time or whose students score in the lowest 5 percent.
"This bipartisan agreement came about because policymakers were wise enough not to throw the testing 'baby' out with the bathwater," says Bill Jackson, CEO and founder of GreatSchools.org. "Parents don't want their kids to undergo unnecessary tests or endless hours of prep, but they do want to know how their children are doing and how well their schools are performing."
Nationally normed annual tests can provide that information, says Jackson; however, "but the results aren't easy for parents to interpret."
GreatSchools hopes to change that. Working with major test providers, the organization just launched the GreatKids State Test Guide for Parents: a free online tool that's organized by grade and subject.
"This tool will help parents understand the scores and use them to support their kids' learning," says Jackson. "The guide fills a critical need: specific, actionable information for parents, customized to the grade level of their children and described relative to the sections of the tests."
To learn more, and to use the guide, visit StateTestGuide.org.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)