By Sally Absher
Seems everyone is jumping on the “there is too much testing in public schools” bandwagon these days, from President Obama to his (soon to be former) Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to Chairman of the Senate Education Committee Lamar Alexander.

The Obama administration recently released a “Testing Action Plan” that recommends in order to reduce “over-testing,” school districts should ensure that no more than 2% of classroom time is devoted to testing. Duncan said, “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’m in with educators who are understandably stressed and concerned about an overemphasis on testing in some places and how much time testing and test prep are taking from instruction…”

Under No Child Left Behind, students are required to take 17 federally mandated standardized tests during their K-12 career. But a recent survey by the Council of the Great City Schools found that the average student will take around 112 mandatory standardized tests during their school career.

Alexander, writing in Time magazine, said while the president is right about students taking too many tests, the real reason we have too many tests is that there are too many federal mandates that put high stakes on student test results.

How ironic. Alexander helped enact many of those federal mandates. He believes the current congressional attempt to “fix” No Child Left Behind will solve the problem. But critics are not so sure the “fix” will be any better than the original law – perhaps disbanding the Department of Education and returning education policy to the states and local government would be a better idea – but Alexander is right about one thing:

He said, “The more we studied the problem, the more the issue seemed not to be the 17 federal tests but the federally designed system of rewarding or punishing schools and teachers that was attached to the tests.” Because those tests count so much in the federally mandated “accountability system,” states and school districts are giving students dozens of additional tests to prepare for the federal tests.

The Council of the Great City Schools also reported that the average time spent testing was 2.34%, or approximately 4.22 total days spent on just testing – not test practice or test prep. It also does not include other non-standardized tests (e.g., those teachers develop and use to assess their students’ learning).

Last February, KCS received a $40,000 grant from Achieve Inc. to conduct a comprehensive review and inventory of the student assessments that are administered across the district. The assessment was led by Christy Hendler, the newest graduate of the Broad Fellows program to land at KCS. The unapproved grant under which she was hired has expired, but we are still paying her $90K/year salary plus benefits.

Hendler presented the results of the Assessment Inventory to the Board of Education at October’s mid-month Work Session. The inventory, which included input from principals, teachers, students, and parents, concluded that students in grades 3 through 12 spent between 10 and 20 hours (average 13.4 hours) taking required state and district tests in 2014-15. This is less than 2%, assuming instructional time of 6 hours a day for 180 days.

However, teachers estimated that the total time impact of high stakes testing (including planning/preparation during class and lost instructional time due to modified schedules during the test window) is much greater – between a median of 38 hours (3.5% of school year) and a mean of 79 hours/7.3% of instructional time. That probably doesn’t include necessary time to teach 8 and 9 year olds how to type, since state assessments will be given online this year.

Speaking of which, KCS Central Office is doing a full PR blitz to tell Knox County parents and students how awesome the NEW TNReady tests are going to be! We’ll see just how awesome this rebranded Smarter Balanced assessment purchased from Utah turns out to be – the Part 1 testing window for high school students opens November 2. A full seven weeks before the end of the semester. Talk about losing instructional time!

The state has offered districts a waiver from including the quick-scores in student grades this year.  (The state claims the waiver is because the results won’t be back in time to be included in student grades, but does anyone believe this is not going to be a train wreck?) The KCS Board of Education voted unanimously to accept the waiver last month, although some high school principals have since asked for an option to include grades for students who otherwise might not pass a course.

KCS is holding a series of TNReady information/Q&A meetings at schools across the county.  Parents have a lot more power to change things than most realize.

Don’t be that parent who spoke up at a TNReady Information/QA meeting at one school recently. She agreed that these tests are having a negative effect on our kids. She then said, “But there is nothing we can do about it.” It is a sad state when parents concede control of their children’s education to what they know is harmful. If parents are not willing to fight for their children’s education, this will be known as the lost generation.