Sen. Jon Tester called for a dramatic reduction in federally mandated standardized tests that he and supporters said eat up class time and waste tax dollars with little effect on student success.
Standing in the lobby of Sentinel High School in Missoula on Tuesday, the Democrat announced he would introduce the Student Testing Improvement and Accountability Act for a second time. The bill would cut the number of tests required by federal officials to just three: One in elementary school, another in middle school and a third in high school. Since the 2002 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and subsequent iterations, schools must test students on federal standards in third through eighth and 11th grades.
“When you’re preoccupied with taking tests or teaching the tests, it takes away from the ability to teach kids to think critically and be successful in the world we live in today,” Tester said.
Identical measures have been introduced in Congress repeatedly since 2014 but none has advanced beyond the initial committee despite a growing national movement to reduce standardized testing.
Rep. Christopher Gibson, R-N.Y., sponsored the first version of the bill. Gibson, and later Tester, carried the measure in 2015. Earlier this year, Rep. Krysten Sinema, R-Ariz., introduced the bill to the House. Tester Spokesman Luke Jackson said Tester would likely introduce the measure in the Senate when he returns to Washington.
Tester said Tuesday he thinks the time is finally right to pass the legislation.
Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Thane agreed, noting that the Every Student Succeeds Act passed in late 2015 already has loosened some requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. For instance, the power to sanction schools who perform poorly on standardized tests was shifted from federal to state officials.
Aspects of the legislation have yet to take effect as states develop plans and as new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reviews the guidelines developed by the previous administration.
“It held great promise to return local control of the educational system,” Thane said of the Every Student Succeeds Act. “Unfortunately, we find we continue to be burdened with repeated requests for standardized testing data.”
Tester described his measure as strengthening local control by returning power to each district to decide the best manner and frequency of testing for its students. Sentinel Principal Ted Fuller lauded the intent.
“The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of public education, and I think the reason for that is the founding fathers saw the importance of local control and the idea that grassroots, community-based governance, in terms of public education, was wise and prudent.”
Thane said the current forms of testing required by federal officials as a way to measure compliance with national standards do not provide information that districts and teachers can use in a meaningful way to improve instruction. While it’s “important to have the occasional dip sticking so we know where we stand in terms of our relationship to students all across the country,” he said the cookie cutter tests do not adequately test the specific goals the state of Montana and each district set for themselves within the national requirements. And, he said, the results come after students leave for the summer, too late to adjust classroom strategies.
If schools were required to do less federal testing, Thane said the district could develop “formative testing” strategies that line up with the less formal daily observations and collaborations that the best teachers already do.
Missoula Education Association President Melanie Charlson, who taught for 22 years in the district before leading the union, said the current deluge of testing takes away from valuable instruction time.
“Nearly the entire month of March is in a holding pattern in grades 3 through 8 and 11 due to that testing window,” she said. “Our time with students is too limited to put education on hold across so many grades for weeks at a time.”
She also argued that existing law diverts tax dollars from classrooms to private companies that develop the tests, citing a common-used estimate from 2012 that puts the national cost at almost $2 billion annually.
The author of that study, Matthew Chingos of the nonprofit Urban Institute, wrote in 2015 that those costs are “barely a drop in the bucket of a public education system that spends over $600 billion per year.” Testing costs amount to about $34 per student, he said.