Testing time at schools: Is there a better way?

Should you let your child fail?
Should you let your child fail?

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Story highlights

  • At least eight states allow students to opt out of annual tests, testing advocacy group says
  • Performance-based assessments in lieu of standardized tests used in some parts of U.S.

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)My husband and I try not to talk about the "state tests," as my girls, 8 and 9, call them, but our daughters still bring them up fairly often.

Those tests are especially on the mind of my fourth-grader. Testing begins on her 10th birthday (poor girl!) plus she knows, even though we've never discussed it, that scores on fourth-grade exams are among the factors New York City middle schools consider for admission.
    The tests have certainly been the focus of a growing debate as more parents, teachers, administrators and lawmakers around the country question whether children as young as the third grade should be subjected to lengthy exams in language arts and math.
    President Barack Obama added his voice to the debate in October when he said students are spending too much time taking "unnecessary" exams and announced new nonbinding guidelines, which would limit standardized exams to no more than 2% of the instructional time in a classroom.
    At least eight states now allow parents to opt out of the tests, meaning state law gives them the right not to have their children take standardized tests, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a testing reform advocacy group known as FairTest. Last year, in New York state, for example, about 20% of the approximately 1.1 million students eligible to take the exams in grades three through eight -- more than 200,000 students -- did not take them and did not have a valid reason for doing so, according to the New York State Education Department.
    To try and reduce the number of children who sit out this year, New York state has instituted reforms, including slightly reducing the length of the tests and making the exams untimed, meaning a child can take as much time as he or she needs to complete each exam on each of the six days of testing. Under federal regulations, if fewer than 95% of students at a school participate in the state tests, that school could lose federal funding.
    Opt-out activist Bianca Tanis and her son Charlie, 11.
    "They're saying, 'Guess what? Your kids aren't going to be stressed out because they will have an unlimited amount of time, and my husband said, 'That's like saying we're going to give you an unlimited amount of time to pass a kidney stone,' " said Bianca Tanis, co-founder of the New York State Allies for Public Education, one of the organizations leading the opt-out movement.
    But beyond the debate over whether we're testing our kids too much or teaching too much to the test, another question hasn't gotten as much attention: If you don't test, how would you measure student progress?

    The challenges of reforming a testing regime

    "Reforming a test regime is like reforming the tax code," said Anya Kamenetz, author of the recently released book "The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing, But You Don't Have to Be." "To actually ... go through and get rid of them becomes so hard because every test, just like every tax, has a constituency."
    Anya Kamenetz says many measures exist besides standardized tests.
    In an online piece for NPR, adapted in part from her book, Kamenetz laid out a number of possibilities that schools could use in lieu of standardized tests.
    Consider something as simple as sampling, where a smaller number of students would take the annual tests. Instead of everyone across grades sitting for them every year, they would be given to a statistically representative sampling of students. It is the same approach used by what is known as the Nation's Report Card, said Kamenetz, lead digital education reporter for NPR. Samples of students in grades four, eight and 12 are tested to assess what U.S. students know and can do in various subject areas.
    Other ideas include assessing students based on their performance, reviewing their projects, papers, presentations and portfolios. Twenty-eight schools throughout New York state do this as part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium. They don't use standardized tests but rely on teacher-created and performance-based assessments.
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    They point to college acceptance and high school dropout rates to show the success of their approach. Ninety-one percent of students in the consortium are accepted to college, versus 63% for New York City as a whole. Less than 10% of students in the consortium drop out of high school versus a 19% high school dropout rate across the city, according to the consortium.
    "Here's a program that simply does not rely on standardized tests but produces data that can be aggregated up to show the success of the program," said Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest. "To us, that's a more meaningful accountability than another test score. It's real world. I mean part of school is what you do afterward? We want kids, I assume, to be learning and happy and healthy and all that in schools, I hope we do, but test scores don't tell us much about that."
    New Hampshire, as part of a pilot program, will be using performance-based assessments in some grades in eight districts throughout the year instead of the state standardized tests.
    Assessments built into the curriculum are a better way to monitor students than high-stakes standardized tests, said Tanis, the opt-out activist and mother or two. When you attach stakes to the assessment, it "becomes the driving force of what goes on in the classroom," she added. "When it becomes the focus, it really corrupts the nature of teaching and learning."

    'Stealth assessment' of students

    So-called stealth assessment, done without students' knowledge, is also gaining traction, experts say. Instead of progress based entirely on the results of annual tests, student performance is measured throughout the year, even day to day, using software and could be compared with a national scale.
    "Good teachers are doing assessment every day in their classroom, so how do we aggregate that sort of student-level information up to a place where it's providing very precise information and it's not interrupting the flow of learning," Kamenetz said.
    "There's an inherent advantage because you are reducing test anxiety because there's not one high-stakes day, and you're also getting a picture of effort over time. When a teacher has a sense of a student, how hard they're trying, that's something that is really important information for learning and for success."
    Since nearly every child in third through eighth grade is familiar with video games, it's no surprise that developers are also coming up with novel ways to measure progress by assessing kids' thinking and the ability to take feedback, according to Kamenetz. Could you just imagine the joy on a child's face when, instead of having to take annual standardized tests, they would be given game-based assessments to measure how well they perform?
    "What games do is they offer this sort of inherent personalization because as you play the game, you sort of learn how to play the game. ... You often fail a lot, but it still is part of the fun," Kamenetz said. Game-based assessments can help students "learn how to fail productively on the way to conquering a challenge," she said.
    Another approach is some form of a school quality review system along the lines of the one that the United Kingdom has used since the 19th century, including today in Scotland's own school system. Teams of people, often retired educators or educators on leave, spend time at a school, where they look at curriculum and assessment evidence, interview teachers, administrators and parents and shadow students, FairTest's Neill said.
    Such an approach, along with a limited form of standardized testing, preferably sampling, would give a "much better sense of accountability that goes beyond evidence of learning in two subjects or three," Neill said. (In addition to standardized tests in English language arts and math, some students are given a test in science, too.)
    With more conversation about how important qualities such as perseverance and grit are when it comes to success, social and emotional skill surveys are another approach to measure how well students are doing in lieu of annual tests.
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    In Maryland, the Montgomery County Public Schools have reportedly used the Gallup Student Poll, a survey that aims to measure levels of engagement, well-being and hope. Nationwide, more than 850,000 students in grades five through 12 took the poll last year. Gallup, according to its research, says it has found hope is a stronger predictor of college success than GPA or SAT and ACT scores.
    "There's this assumption that a test score is going to indicate that you are college ready," said Tanis of the New York State Allies for Public Education. "We have to ensure that we are creating confident, civic-minded, well-rounded, creative, outside-of-the-box thinkers, and actually there's no evidence that what we're doing supports that."
    Do you support annual standardized testing of students? What do you think is the best way to measure student progress? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.