Conservative-Liberal Common Ground on High Stakes K-12 End-of-Year Testing

by James C. Sherlock

I have reported here often on the fierce opposition of much of the public education establishment — read graduate schools of education and the teachers unions — to what they label “high-stakes” testing.

What many in those groups really object to is the visibility of standards that subjects them to public review and the accountability that testing brings.

But there are legitimate complaints about the current system.

  • Some teachers feel constrained by the tests. Many think the time devoted to end-of-year testing could be better spent.
  • Others, including parents, contend that accountability is necessary, but they find the information comes too late to be actionable.

Those are legitimate observations. Florida appears to have found a way to satisfy those issues while maintaining accountability.

Accountability brings pressure. Federal law requires both testing and accountability in public schools that receive federal funds.

That pressure on the education establishment has been transferred to pressure on the Virginia political establishment to weaken the standards and reduce testing. Virginia politicians have not been immune to it. We have seen standards for SOL passing grades lowered and the frequency of tests reduced in some subjects and multi-year testing waivers for COVID.

The need. For students, parents and government officials, however, standardized tests provide the only means available to determine whether kids are being well taught and have learned key material. The tests reveal whether the schools and the students (and their parents) have been doing their jobs and the children have reasonable chances in the next grade — and in life.

Time-late information. Very often the standardized test results identify major gaps between the grades being awarded on school report cards and the end-of-year standardized test results. If so, the information is time-late.

Parents and government officials do not find out until the school year is over which students did not learn the material at state levels of adequacy and in which schools and classrooms they were concentrated.

What to do? So is there a way to accommodate both that maintains standards and conducts assessments yet reduces the stakes of one-time tests and eliminates time-late information?

The answer is yes.

Progress monitoring. On March 15 of this year, Governor DeSantis signed legislation that will make Florida the first state in the nation to fully implement progress monitoring instead of end-of-year standardized testing.

Beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, Florida students will have three short progress checks instead of multi-day, end-of-year, high-stakes tests for English Language Arts and Mathematics.

Florida is starting that new program from a position of considerable relative strength.

  • Florida was the first state in the nation to reopen schools in August 2020 and guarantee families had an in-person instructional option five days a week. So Florida students were not subjected to the massive learning losses of children in Virginia.
  • The state under DeSantis has spent $2 billion in the past three years on pay raises for teachers.
  • Florida was ranked third in the nation in January 2021 by the Education Week Research Center in the quality of its public schools. Massachusetts finished first in the nation for K-12 Achievement, with a B. New Jersey also received a B and Florida was awarded the only B-minus.

There was an equity component in the Ed Week rankings.

The EdWeek Research Center conducted for that report an original analysis to calculate four distinct indicators that capture the degree to which education funding is equitably distributed across the districts within a state.

Calculations for each equity indicator took into account regional differences in educational costs and the concentrations of low-income students and those with disabilities, whose services are more expensive than average. Students in poverty received a weight of 1.2; students with disabilities received a weight of 1.9.

Florida tied Illinois for the highest equity score in the nation. I suspect that comes as a major surprise to the left, as DeSantis and the Florida legislature are considered notorious “haters” by that crowd.

Other notable provisions in Florida law. For education professionals and legislative staffs, I provide Florida Senate Bill  1048 of the 2022 session that makes these changes.

You will find a lot of interesting additional differences from Virginia law that may be worthy of consideration. For example, starting at line 1124 of the bill:

(c) To be promoted to grade 4, a student must score a Level 2 or higher on the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment required under s. 1008.22 for grade 3. If a student’s reading deficiency is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring Level 2 or higher on the statewide, standardized assessment required under s. 1008.22 for grade 3, the student must be retained. (Emphasis added)

The same law bans social promotions system-wide.

A solution to serve all. The Florida solution to end-of-year high stakes testing seems to accommodate simultaneously the best interests of teachers, students and parents. It also accommodates the political positions of the left about high stakes testing and of conservatives about accountability.

Critically, it will provide progress information to students, parents and teachers in a more timely and actionable manner.

If teachers and the kids they teach were uniformly skilled and motivated across the state, your characterization of the process of teaching would be correct. They are not. We have great teachers, average teachers and bad teachers. We have kids who work hard and kids who don’t. Kids have different skills and different levels of support at home. Absenteeism is a huge variable.

Teachers give tests at regular intervals, but what are the quality of those tests? How informative to parents and schools, school divisions and the state are the grades awarded by poor teachers?

The entire motivation for the federal government mandating statewide testing programs across America was to identify failing schools, failing teachers and failing kids to correct the problems that caused those failures.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and in large measure passed the torch of direct oversight of the testing program from the federal government to the states.

The current testing system in Virginia provides historical information received too late to act on. Periodic statewide tests would serve to fix that.

Virginia is already a year behind Florida even if we pass implementing legislation next year. The lessons from Florida will be visible before VDOE has to implement any new state law with regulations.

I recommend Virginia consider following Florida’s lead. Substitute timely progress checks for high-stakes end-of-year testing in math and language arts.

Updated April 28 at 7:13 AM