A Wonky But Important Argument for Annual Statewide Testing

By 02/12/2015

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In Saturday’s New York Times, I wrote a defense of annual statewide testing in reading and math. In the piece, I used data from the District of Columbia to illustrate that withdrawing from annual statewide testing would make it nearly impossible to hold schools accountable for the performance of specific groups of students. That’s a problem, because NCLB’s emphasis on historically disadvantaged groups forced schools to pay attention to these groups and led to real achievement gains. Today, 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores for black, Hispanic, and low-income students have never been higher.

To see how a move away from annual testing would affect subgroup accountability in other cities, I pulled data from Providence, Rhode Island and Richmond, Virginia. The results confirm that a move away from annual testing would leave many subgroups and more than 1 million students functionally “invisible” to state accountability systems.

As a reminder, No Child Left Behind focuses attention on the progress of groups of students within schools. To be confident that the test results aren’t pulled up or down by a few students and to minimize year-to-year variability, states usually imposed minimum group sizes of 30 or 40 students.

Both Rhode Island and Virginia used relatively high group sizes under NCLB–Rhode Island used a group size of 45 and Virginia used 50. As part of the NCLB waiver process, which allowed states to use relative ranking school accountability systems as opposed to more of a relative ranking system and less of a formulaic trigger, both Rhode Island and Virginia lowered their group sizes. Rhode Island lowered its group size all the way down to 20, and Virginia dropped its group size to 30 students. After these changes, both Virginia and Rhode Island estimated that far more students and subgroups would “count” under their new rules.

For example, Virginia calculated that this change would, “increase the approximate number of schools accountable for African American students from 353 to 451, for Hispanic students from 122 to 183, students with disabilities from 105 to 396, English Learners from 104 to 139, and free and reduced price lunch students from 672 to 717.”

This progress would largely disappear without annual testing.

To see the effects in Rhode Island, I applied Rhode Island’s group size of 20 students to the city of Providence. Providence is relatively poor and has a large number of Hispanic students, and even under a grade-span approach where schools were only accountable for the performance of, say, 5th graders, all schools in the district had enough low-income and Hispanic 5th grade students for the groups to count. But only six out of 22 schools would be accountable for black students, only eight would be accountable for English Learners, five for students with disabilities, and only one for white students.

Without annual test results and under Rhode Island’s old group size of 45, 0 Providence schools would have been accountable for black, white, or students with disabilities.

Another way to look at this is in terms of how many total students would become “invisible” under a grade-span approach. The screenshot below shows the enrollment of a representative Providence elementary school (click on the table to make it bigger). The black squares represent all the students who are currently captured under NCLB’s annual testing requirement. Currently, 810 students “count” toward the school’s accountability rating for individual subgroups. (Note that these are “duplicated” counts, because a black student who is also low-income counts under both categories). Under a grade-span approach, represented by the red squares, only 190 students would count. That’s partly a function of fewer grades that are tested, but it’s also a function of more subgroups being invisible.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Applying this same approach to Virginia, I looked at this year’s enrollment figures for Richmond’s public schools. Using the same minimum group size currently employed for entire schools (30) to the fifth grade only, here’s how many of Richmond’s 27 public elementary schools would be accountable for various subgroups of students:

– Black students: 22/27 schools
– Low-income students: 22/27
– White students: 2/27
– Asian students: 0/27
– Hispanic students: 2/27
– Students with disabilities: 0/27
– English Learners: 2/27

This may sound like a wonky, esoteric reason to keep annual statewide testing, but NCLB’s focus on the academic progress of historically disadvantaged groups of students was the right one. It caused schools to pay attention to particular groups of students within schools, and that added attention paid off. If we retreat on annual statewide testing, we’d go back to an earlier era where the progress of black, Hispanic, and low-income students could be easily over-looked.

—Chad Aldeman

This post originally appeared on Ahead of the Heard

Comment on this article
  • Lynda Kennedy says:

    As the parent of a child with learning challenges I am aware of tbe need for assessments tbat give us and her teachers information that can inform instructional approaches. However, a number divorced from her work that comes back 4 or 5 months after she took the test doesn’t help at all and the format- no matter how much extended time they give-is not the best way for her to show her learning, especially in math, where she can show quite a lot if she would be allowed to use manipulatives. Instead, millions of dollars and days or instructional time are given to these tests that do not provide data to inform instruction. They are used instead to hold back children, punish teachers and close schools- making “good” schools reluctant to take students who do not score well, putting them at a great disadvantage when it comes to school-“choice” cities like mine. Choice becomes very limited for kids who don’t have 3s or 4s. If you could please explain how all this money and time helps individual children grow in their learning, or teachers better adjust their insfructional sfrategies, I would love to hear it.

  • PhillipMarlowe says:

    Today, 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores for black, Hispanic, and low-income students have never been higher.
    Over at the NYT, Chad gives full credit to NCLB for this.
    However, data is not on his side.

    Black And Hispanic Students Are Making Meaningful Gains, But It’s Hard To Tell


    Political leaders are fond of saying the United States is in an education crisis.

    The U.S. is often shown to be losing ground internationally. We revisit a Sputnik moment every time international test scores are released, and some of the Sturm und Drang over our decline is a response to America’s middling ranking among other wealthy countries. However, the U.S. has historically underperformed on such cross-national comparisons. We came in 11 out of 12 on the first international assessment of math in 1964, for instance.

    “People like the simple story,” said Jack Buckley, the head of research at the College Board, who previously led the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm. “And the simple story is we’re treading water while the others are pushing ahead of us. I think [that] is the narrative of the times.”

    But the truth is more complicated than the image of a U.S. education system stuck in the mire. And by one important measure, the nation’s students have been improving at a steady pace for decades.


    And look at this chart:

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