Superintendents, Teachers Call for Less Testing in Ohio Education Plan
Many Ohio educators aren’t satisfied with the latest plan outlining Ohio’s approach to education policy. Teachers’ unions and groups of school administrators call the draft ESSA plan a “missed opportunity” to reduce the number of standardized tests.
In early February, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) released its draft plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The plan doesn’t reduce the number of standardized tests that Ohio children take over a 12-year public education.
“We over-test,” says Dr. Jim Lloyd, Superintendent of the Olmsted Falls City School District. “And when you do that, you shrink the curriculum down to only those things [tested] –and you may not necessarily do it purposefully—but that's the reality of what happens.”
Lloyd is one of 30 Ohio administrators to sign on to a white paper responding to the Ohio draft ESSA plan. The document is critical of a number of a number of parts of the draft, including the state school report card system, but at its center, it calls for less standardized tests.
“It’s the status quo,” says Becky Higgins, president of the state’s largest teachers’ union the Ohio Education Association. “We are questioning the reasoning behind that, just like the superintendents are.”
That point echoes community feedback collected before the plan was drafted. ODE got responses from 15,000 Ohioans through 10 meetings throughout the state, an online survey, and a series of webinars. Respondents reported they want students to be tested less often, and for the state to stop changing which tests it uses.
Who’s requiring the tests?
Congress passed ESSA with bipartisan support in 2015. Many lawmakers voted for it because it created greater flexibility for states to come up with their own plans to comply with federal education policy.
But ESSA still requires federal standardized testing.
The educators’ response drew attention to an ESSA requirement of 17 tests over the course of a child’s education, but Ohio requires 24 tests. State law mandates more tests than the feds do, for example social studies assessments. Most of the federally-required tests assess students’ math and language arts skills.
“The reality is: the way that math and language arts go, that's how the other subjects go as well,” Lloyd says.
Lloyd and other educators want to see a more flexible approach, but that would require a change in state law.
“It’s not just the state tests, but you have to remember that the local districts also give their own tests,” the OEA’s Higgins says. “So, it’s tests on top of tests. When you’re taking all that time on testing, it means less time for teaching and learning for the students. And this was an opportunity to reduce the number of tests.”
Is there a choice?
Reducing the number of state tests is not as simple as writing it into the Ohio ESSA plan, according to Chris Woolard, ODE Senior Executive Director for Accountability and Continuous Improvement.
“That’s a conversation that happens with state leaders, including the state legislature, because this is in state law,” he says.
Woolard also recommends that district leaders look at some of the assessments given at the district level to see if some tests are redundant.
“There’s a lot of opportunity there for districts to think strategically about how they use tests for different things,” Woolard says.
Some educators see district tests as being driven by state requirements. Canton City School District Superintendent Adrian Allison says districts follow the state’s lead.
“These are by-products of a system that you’ve created,” explains Allison, who is also co-chair of The Ohio 8 Coalition, an alliance of the state’s urban district leaders.
“That would be foolish practice not to give diagnostic tests for kids to find out where they are, and figure out where improvement needs to happen in order to then take their final assessment,” Allison says.
Representatives for Ohio educators wanted to see the plan include, at least, aspirations to test students less often. State officials explain the state document for the feds is just not the place to address that concern.
“This ESSA plan is important, but it’s just one piece of a larger conversation around education policy,” Woolard says, citing graduation requirements as an example.
Some ODE work groups are examining the high school graduation requirements and evaluation methods for teachers, and both relate directly to state tests.
“Those conversations are happening… but you’re not necessarily going to see those details fleshed out in the ESSA plan, because that’s not the place for it,” he explains.
Some superintendents disagree.
“We absolutely believe that part of this plan should take into account a reduction in testing,” Allison says.
The Ohio 8 Coalition believes that part of the problem is that ODE set a stricter than necessary deadline for itself to submit the state plan to the U.S. Department of Education. Under the federal law, states have a deadline of April 3 or September 18.
The urban school superintendent organization maintains the state should have opted for the later deadline.
“That gives you that space if you need to have dialogue with legislators about what do we need to change in our system,” Allison says. He would have liked to see a movement in the legislature to reduce the number of tests included in the state budget that must pass before the end of June. It could have then been included in the education plan submitted later in the year.
While ODE says the state plan can be updated, as needed, the deadline to choose the draft submission date for peer review was in January.
What’s the matter with testing?
“When you get people who are making laws to try to hold districts accountable, the easiest and cleanest way to do it is just to give kids a test for three hours, get the results, rank everybody, and go, ‘these schools are really good and these schools aren’t really good,’” says Superintendent Lloyd. “But there's just so much more inside the black box of learning than just summative assessment.”
Teachers repeat a similar sentiment regularly.
“All the time spent on preparing for the tests, practicing for the tests, and then the time spent administering the tests and the students taking the tests is taking away from the real teaching and learning that is imperative for our students to have,” says Higgins from OEA.
Lloyd wants the state to be more creative in the way learning in Ohio is assessed.
His colleague in Canton, Allison, agrees.
“One size doesn’t fit all. And there’s a whole different way that you measure learning. Measuring learning doesn’t always happen by filling in a bubble on a prescribed test,” Allison says.
Put simply, the educators say they’re fine with measuring and reporting how Ohio students are doing. But they want a different yard stick than a standardized test to do the measuring.
Lloyd describes a formative assessment as a GPS that shows the path a student is on in their learning. Summative assessments, the kind the federal government requires in the form of a standardized test, are like “looking in a rear view mirror.”
“You can’t go back and change it,” Lloyd says.
Formative assessments take many forms every day in classrooms: observation of classroom discussions, projects, or portfolio work. The results give educators a sense of what their lessons should better reinforce. Lloyd says with a little creativity a plan could be devised to take what’s already happening in schools, formalize it, and report it to ODE.
Woolard at ODE says the state’s tests are designed to be formative. Still, some educators aren’t satisfied with the model.
The superintendents clarify that they aren’t opposed to being held accountable for student learning. But Allison says it should happen in a different way, one that does “not treat our kids like they are widgets, but instead we would treat them like they are individual learners.”
“That plan is not the end-all, be-all, nor is it mean to be the larger plan for education in Ohio,” Woolard says.
Officials at ODE say changes that come from multiple committees and work groups may end up in the ESSA plan as they are addressed.
The public comment period for the draft closes March 6th. It will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for peer review on April 3rd.
Superintendent Lloyd and the administrators who signed on to the draft response to the draft Ohio ESSA plan are working on another document with more detailed suggestion on how they think ODE should make revisions, not only to ESSA, but to the state’s system of testing going forward.
The district superintendents with The Ohio 8 Coalition are drafting their response to the Ohio ESSA plan, which will be released soon.
Superintendent Allison acknowledges the reducing standardized testing in Ohio will be a complex task, but he says it needs to happen.
“Right now, we’re hurting our kids with this testing,” he says. “Because they feel the pressure, the parents feel the pressure, the districts feel the pressure, and I’m not sure that it ultimately reflects what’s happening in classrooms across the state.”