An editorial in the Charlotte Observer recently highlighted the possibility of a return to grade-span testing in schools. This would replace the annual testing that has become the driver of much recent “education reform.” The proposal is part of a the NCLB rewrite that is ongoing — a reauthorization failed to win enough support in the House to pass.
The thought behind annual testing, introduced as part of NCLB, is that such a testing regimen will lead to additional accountability.
Instead, it has led to cheating scandals in districts like Atlanta and to the dreaded “teaching to the test” as teachers and schools attempt to play by the rules they are given.
Opponents of a return to grade-span testing say it will reduce accountability and take away the ability to track things like the achievement gap.
Both claims are false. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the gold standard of education tests. It is administered in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade. It’s on a rotating schedule, but each subject is tested every other year. States are compared by it and state education departments use it to hold their overall system accountable. NAEP also allows for tracking of achievement gaps.
Back in 2013, when Tennessee was applauding itself for its “fastest-improving” status on NAEP, I wrote a piece about the expanding achievement gap in Tennessee. I was able to conduct the analysis that showed an expanded achievement gap because years of NAEP data exist. It’s grade-span testing. It can be used to hold states (or districts) accountable and it can track progress (or the lack thereof) on achievement gaps.
It also, as the Observer piece notes, can reduce the emphasis placed on tests in schools and allow students and their teachers to focus on learning. In fact, were grade-span testing to become the norm (again) more systems may be likely to try an experiment in project-based learning such as the one taking place now in Danville, Kentucky.
Whether grade-span testing is part of the final version of federal education or not is still up in the air. And, even if it should become law, states would still be allowed to conduct annual testing. Still, the fact that it is being seriously discussed means there’s hope for a new path forward — one that keeps accountability while allowing flexibility. That’s a win for students, schools, and families.
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