There is little in K-12 education policy with broader bipartisan support than reducing the number of standardized tests children take, a result of the 2001 law commonly known as No Child Left Behind.
One state is trying an approach that, if successful, could become a model for other states. At the same time, members of Congress are tackling the too-much-testing problem as they attempt to overhaul the law.
In 2005, New Hampshire revamped its entire high school curriculum, moving to a competency-based program that requires students to demonstrate mastery of concepts as opposed to time spent in a particular class. The state is currently awaiting approval from the Department of Education on whether it can modify some annual tests in four pilot school districts to better align with those standards.
The New Hampshire model gives more control to students by setting goals for what students should know and then letting them learn however they are best able, be it in the classroom, online or in the community somewhere, said Paul Leather, the state’s deputy education commissioner.
“If we give them those competencies and provide them many learning opportunities, they feel they own the learning,” he said in an interview.
For example, a math question in a traditional curriculum might be a division question with multiple-choice answers. But a competency-based question might be something such as, “You have a recipe that requires two cups of flour, but you only want to make half the recipe. How much flour do you use?”
At a higher level, the competency question might ask a student to write a memo to solve some sort of current social problem and include historical background. That shows the student can apply history that was learned, as opposed to a test that requires the student recite facts about a historical event.
Key to the competency-based model was designing tests that allow students to show they’ve mastered concepts.
“In this day and age, it’s not so much do you have knowledge. Everybody can get knowledge at their fingertips with their phone. It’s what can you do with it, how much can you actually accomplish with knowledge, what can you show the world that you’re able to do based on what you’ve learned,” he said.
Federal law requires 17 tests every year: once annually in third through eighth grades and again in high school in reading and math, plus three times throughout a student’s career in science.
The number of tests students take, however, is far higher. Some schools give students tests at intervals throughout the year to see how they’re progressing prior to the federally mandated tests. Some states require separate tests that are linked to teacher and principal evaluations.
The New Hampshire model directly attacks the problem of exploding local and state assessments, Leather explained. Performance-based assessments better combine locally mandated tests, including those teachers create such as midterm exams or end-of-unit quizzes, with the state assessments. That reduces the number of tests students have to take.
“We’ve essentially integrated the local assessments with the state assessments and put forward a model that would essentially bring those together as one system of assessments for accountability,” Leather said.
New Hampshire leaders have been talking with the DOE on a “monthly basis” and hope to get approval in time to use the competency-based tests in 11th grade in the four pilot districts. Otherwise the students will take the SmarterBalanced test, a multi-state test aligned to the Common Core State Standards, a set of academic standards. That test will be given to students in New Hampshire and 16 other states for the first time this year; it was administered in a few places on a trial basis last year.
The original No Child Left Behind law does permit locally designed assessments be given instead of the mandatory state tests, Leather said in testimony submitted to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. But DOE regulations are so burdensome it’s time-consuming and difficult to gain approval, he added.
Congress is trying to address the problem of ever-expanding testing mandates, both via the rewrite of No Child Left Behind and separate measures.
HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander, for example, thinks his proposal to let states design school accountability and teacher evaluation systems will help reduce the number of tests schools give.
“This highly prescriptive, federally defined set of rules about whether teachers and schools are succeeding or failing, that may be the cause of a lot of the tests,” the Tennessee Republican said. “If states have their own accountability systems ... that would reduce the number of state and local tests.”
A witness at one of Alexander’s hearings said tests tied to teacher evaluation may be responsible for as much as 40 percent of all exams students take.
Separately, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., introduced bills that would give grants to states to audit the tests currently being given and develop a plan to eliminate those that are redundant or don’t otherwise align with the state’s curriculum standards.
Though federal legislators are also debating whether to maintain the current annual federal mandate, Leather said the state doesn’t want to totally do away with broad annual assessments, which let New Hampshire compare performance across schools.
“We believe there is a place and a role for large-scale state assessments that really give you a concrete, comparable value around core skills and learning like reading, writing, arithmetic, math, what have you,” he said.
New Hampshire plans to double the number of pilot schools next year and finish out another two years in the pilot program before looking at whether it can be used statewide, Leather said.
Even if it does work in New Hampshire, the high school competency model might be hard to translate nationally. The Granite State has been exploring the model since the late 1990s, is still awaiting approval from the Education Department and is trying it on a very small scale: There were only about 185,000 children enrolled in public high school in New Hampshire last school year.