In a shift, more education reformers say they’re worried about schools’ focus on testing

It was not the place you’d expect to hear sharp critiques of standardized testing.

But they just kept coming last week at an event put on by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, an organization that has spent 25 years studying and supporting key tenets of education reform.

“If there is one office in every state I would want to get rid of, it’s the accountability office,” said Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who previously led a charter school in New Orleans. “I would replace that office with some kind of statewide coordination around personalized learning.” No one on the panel with him disagreed.

“I think too much time, attention, and resources have been devoted to accountability systems that don’t produce outcomes for students that historically struggled,” Lewis Ferebee, the head of Indianapolis Public Schools, said later.

“The way we’re doing [assessment] now — that is so time-, age-, grade-based — is really constraining for those innovators that are developing models that will support all kids,” said Susan Patrick of iNACOL, an organization that promotes technology-based personalized learning in schools.

Those comments reflected the prevailing mood at the event, where testing was criticized for being at odds with the increasingly popular “personalized learning” models that allow students to progress through material at their own pace. Others, including Ferebee, complained that in their states, testing regimens have changed too frequently to be useful.

Such rumblings of discontent with testing are not entirely new among the education reform crowd. Free-market-oriented advocates like Betsy DeVos, for example, have downplayed test scores, suggesting the more important issue is whether parents are satisfied with a given school.

But the pervasiveness of the complaints about testing was striking, given that many education reform advocates have long championed using test scores to measure schools and teachers and then push them to improve.

It left Sandy Kress, an architect of the No Child Left Behind law that ramped up testing, concerned.

“I was worried, frankly, about the conversation earlier today” on testing, he said during one panel. “How it is that the reform community gets to a position of wanting to throw it out as opposed to improve it? I don’t know, I don’t get it.”

This comes a few years after the broader national anti-testing movement reached its height, with large opt-out movements in states like New York prompted by the growth of tests connected to teacher evaluations and new academic standards. That backlash culminated in the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which scaled back aspects of No Child Left Behind and allowed states to include measures other than test scores in their judgments of school quality.

“If you’re talking about folks at the district and school level, we’ve been hearing this for a really long time,” Maria Worthen of iNACOL said in an interview. “In terms of the policy advocates, this is a newer turn in the conversation.”

In the debates about ESSA, a number of national civil rights groups, Democratic senators, and the influential group Education Trust continued to push for test scores to play a major role in identifying low-performing schools. They argue that the scores help ensure that struggling schools — and the students who attend them, especially the students of color and students from low-income families — aren’t overlooked. They largely succeeded, since ESSA still requires tests to account for a substantial share of a school’s rating.

Test results also continue to carry significant weight among philanthropies. “We do use comparable test data to determine how well our investments are doing,” Caleb Offley, a senior advisor at the Walton Family Foundation, acknowledged during one of the panels. (Walton is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

But differences continue to emerge. Shael Polakow-Suransky — who served as a deputy schools chancellor in New York City under Joel Klein, who awarded schools letter grades based largely on their test scores — recently tweeted, “The biggest barrier to student learning and closing the achievement gap is the current system of standardized tests.”

And in a speech Tuesday at MIT, Paymon Rouhanifard, the former Camden superintendent who also previously worked under Klein in New York City, argued that the focus on math and English test prep had crowded out activities that might better serve students.

“Altogether, the pursuit of better life outcomes for kids might just necessitate a  depression in state test scores,” he said. “Think about that.”

It’s unclear whether the latest concerns about testing will translate into policy, or how it would work if they did, given ESSA’s requirements. And some of the proposed alternatives appear unrealistic.

“I want to be held accountable to ensure that we’re positioning students well for the next phase of their life,” Ferebee said, mentioning he wants students to earn a livable wage — something that couldn’t be measured for years after many students leave school.

Alternatives have disappointed before. Smarter Balanced and PARCC were going to be “tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching,” then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in 2010. Many states ended up dropping these assessments, and neither got more than a brief mention at the event.

Some groups, like iNACOL, had hoped that a pilot program included in the federal education law would spur states to experiment with new types of exams. But only two states have received federal approval, though four more say they’re interested in doing so and a handful of states are experimenting in other ways.

In Maine, a move to “competency-based” learning, where students move ahead as they demonstrate mastery of a skill, was supposed to prompt teachers to develop new kinds of tests based on portfolios of work or specific tasks. But research showed that was difficult for many teachers to do, and educators largely stuck with traditional exams.

Stacey Childress of New Schools Venture Fund, an organization that funds charter schools and education technology initiatives, suggested reducing what educators expect from testing, putting the focus only on identifying the highest and lowest performers.

That would ensure that “the worst things aren’t happening to our most vulnerable kids,” while “capturing just enough to point us to those successes so that we can learn.”

Kress, serving as the tests’ defender, argued that critics were ignoring a key fact. “Research shows clearly that accountability made a real difference in this country in narrowing  the achievement gap and lifting student achievement,” he said.

That’s true, to an extent. One widely cited national study showed that No Child Left Behind did boost students’ performance in math on the low-stakes federal NAEP exam, though it had no effect in reading. There’s also evidence that those gains petered out as states ratcheted up the pressure on schools.

In Texas, one study found that stricter accountability helped students in low-performing schools over the long term.

Research has also shown that turning tests into high-stakes events can prompt negative outcomes, like cheating, teaching to the test, and worse teachers being pushed to grades where students aren’t tested.

And while there is evidence that teachers and schools that raise student test scores also help students do better in the long run, it also appears that teachers’ impact on other measures matters even more.

“I’m happy to hear that these groups are in fact grappling with and realizing some of the same problems we are,” said Andre Green, the executive director of FairTest, a group that pushes for a smaller role for testing. “Come talk to us.”

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.