The case for using ESSA audits to curb high-stakes testing

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by Brian Washington

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In about 2 weeks, Wisconsin educator Angelina Cruz, a 6th grade social studies and reading and language arts teacher, will attend a meeting she hopes will result in her district taking a hard look at the number of high-stakes, standardized tests students are required to take.

Cruz, President of the Racine Education Association (REA), which represents hundreds of educators in the district, and a coalition of several other public education stakeholders, including students, parents, and community leaders, have asked the Board of Education for an audit of all the high-stakes standardized tests district students are required to take.

“We are confident that the district will find, as we believe, that assessments are duplicative and do not provide relevant or timely data to improve and differentiate instruction,” read the November letter to the board. “The members of this coalition also believe that the audit will show that test preparation and administration take too much time and reduce time available for instruction…Finally, we believe that a reduction in state and local assessments can save financial resources that can be used instead for education.”

Racine Education Association President Angelina Cruz

REA members have previously testified before the board about the negative impact high-stakes standardized testing is having on teaching and learning in their classrooms. They spoke to the challenges students face across the K-12 spectrum, including those in special education, English as a second language, and our youngest students.

Cruz is hoping an audit will spark a community-wide conversation about what can be done differently under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind. Under this new federal law, districts like Racine may be eligible for a grant to pay for the audit. She believes ESSA has opened the door for communities to implement more authentic, educator-based assessments—something she says parents want.

I think they (parents) put more faith in the feedback I would give their children,” said Cruz. “That’s because we are the professionals working with kids every day. We, as educators, understand their strengths and weaknesses better than a computerized test.

Some of the information the coalition is seeking includes the following:

  • An inventory of all standards tests, including when they are taken, who takes them, in what subjects, and are they legally required and under what authority;
  • The purpose of each test;
  • The origin and management of each test: who produced it, who grades it;
  • Whether the test is a district, state, or federally mandated test; and
  • How the test data is used to inform instruction.

The district has provided the coalition with some information, but several important pieces remain missing.

“What they provided us was basically inadequate. They gave us a list of what assessments our kids have to take in grades K-12 and the amount of time it takes for them to complete the test,” said Cruz, who also pointed out that the times the district allotted for each test were not completely accurate. She says that was the case with NWEA MAP test, a benchmark assessment that’s given three times a year.

“The district listed it as taking 30-to-45 minutes,” said Cruz. “But we do both math and reading with that particular test so it’s 30-to-45 minutes for both reading and math, and that’s not even including prep-time and make-up tests.”

The board is scheduled to meet with coalition members about the audit on January 23rd. The goal is to jumpstart an inclusive community-based process that involves revamping Racine’s testing landscape for the better.

“The purpose of the testing audit is for everyone to sit down and have a conversation about these assessments and figure out if we have the flexibility to do something different under ESSA,” said Cruz. “At the end of the day, we as educators want to foster in our kids a love of learning, but these high-stakes, standardized tests are doing the exact opposite.”

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