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Testing That Benefits Students

by Brandon Busteed and Jonathan Rodkin
Chart: data points are described in article

Students in the U.S. seem to be spending more time taking tests than ever before. This has sparked local movements to opt out of standardized testing. And national progress on test scores has stagnated, leaving Americans behind international competitors and saddled with yawning achievement gaps based on race and income.

It's time that educators, families and policymakers have more informed conversations about educational tests and assessments. To supply such conversations with relevant data, Gallup partnered with Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) to investigate public perceptions of K-12 assessments. This study captures the views of students, parents, teachers, principals and superintendents, and it comes at a crucial moment for education policy, as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) moves beyond the rigid approach of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The findings suggest that rebalancing assessment systems away from a singular focus on high-stakes standardized tests -- without eliminating such tests, which are important to keep schools and policymakers accountable and to measure progress toward closing achievement gaps -- should be the priority of American educators.

This study reveals some key disconnects in perceptions of assessments across the five populations we surveyed. The most surprising disconnect is that three-quarters of students in fifth through 12th grade and more than half (52%) of their parents say that students spend the right amount of time or too little time taking assessments, while more than seven in 10 teachers, principals and superintendents believe students spend too much time taking assessments.

These findings reveal that opt-out movements and complaints about over-testing are less widespread among American parents and students than news accounts might indicate. In fact, a large majority of students say they spend the right amount of time on assessments, suggesting they are eager to receive feedback about their learning progress. But therein lies the challenge: Are we providing them with enough of the feedback they desire about their progress, or are we testing them too often for accountability's sake?

If teachers and administrators think there's too much testing, their attitudes are likely driven by skepticism about state accountability tests, rather than skepticism about all assessments across the board. In fact, these groups strongly support other types of assessments. While 60% of teachers rate the state tests used in their school as "fair" or "poor," 83% rate formative assessments -- informal diagnostic practices teachers use to guide the learning process -- as "excellent" or "good," and 87% rate classroom tests and quizzes as "excellent" or "good." Likewise, while only 37% of principals say state test results are useful for parents, teachers, students and administrators, more than eight in 10 say interim assessment results, classroom test and quiz results and formative assessment results are useful.

These findings overwhelmingly support the rebalancing of assessment approaches away from the single-measure testing philosophy of NCLB. These data also show that teachers are not anti-assessment, as some media accounts and public officials have painted them. Teachers use assessments frequently and support their continued use -- but teachers value them most for formative and instructional purposes, as opposed to evaluations in general and accountability.

Despite teachers' support for and use of tools like formative and interim assessments, they are not having many conversations about assessments with parents. Sixty-one percent of parents say that their child's teachers "rarely" or "never" discuss their child's assessment results with them. This is a huge missed opportunity to help parents understand the value and purpose of assessments and to deepen the positive effects assessments can have on kids. Right now, far too many parents can't have informed discussions with their kids about testing. No wonder American test scores aren't better -- we do not have enough assessment literacy in this country. Once parents are better informed about various types of assessments, public dialogue about testing will become more sophisticated and will focus on all stakeholders' desires for assessments to be primarily used as tools for instruction and feedback.

Everyone who cares about the future of children in the U.S. has a duty to be better informed about educational assessments. Although testing has become one of the most prominent ways we choose to measure progress in education, it's not the only way. And importantly, not all tests are designed with the same purpose or outcome in mind. The right approach to educational assessments is a flexible one that employs multiple types of assessments. Assessments should occur during all phases of the learning process, and many of them should be tailored to meet students' specific needs.

We need a balanced, robust approach to assessments that engages all relevant stakeholders -- particularly the students, parents and teachers whose voices have not always been heard. Then tests will become something we embrace instead of something we fear.

Download Make Assessment Work for All Students: Multiple Measures Matter.

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