Based on headlines and the noise on social media, you would think the argument over ending ninth grade standardized tests that has played out during the last few weeks was the biggest and best thing to ever happen for high school students. But it isn’t.
We can and should do more than just jettison ninth grade standardized exams.
Although some have argued that annual assessments give us consistent data and that ninth grade is part of that, what they have not proven is that annual assessments give us improved outcomes for students, and especially for ninth-graders.
We all agree that reductions in testing are important. As a parent, I believe reductions in Colorado’s testing system — like ditching ninth grade tests — can coexist with the values of comparability, transparency, and growth.
As evidence, the majority of states maintain testing at the federal minimums, while using accountability systems that allow for comparability, transparency, and growth.
This alone debunks the myth that every student must be tested in every subject every year.
Still, some argue for testing every student, every year because they desire to ensure greater accountability for English and math, desire to evaluate student achievement for more grades, and for the purpose of educator evaluations.
But none of these reasons for constant testing address whether testing produces effective and equitable outcomes for our children. In fact, according to the National Education Policy Center nearly 20 years of testing have proven to be both ineffective and inequitable.
Colorado has used state assessments since 1997 to compare student achievement levels across districts in the state for accountability purposes. Likewise, for decades, Colorado has used National Association for Educational Progress, or NAEP, for comparisons across the country, and to monitor the progress of sub-groups of students broken down by race, gender, socioeconomic status, and English Language learners. NAEP has provided comparable measures of achievement levels and achievement gaps during the past four decades. According to NAEP results, achievement gaps closed during a period of time in the 1980s, when there was less testing, not more. Since that time, there has been an increase in state testing while the achievement gap has stabilized.
For comparability across Colorado, there are other ways to compare schools in general, and high schools in particular. Yes, eliminating ninth grade tests does disrupt growth data as we currently know it for high school students. But that does not disrupt students from growing, or being able to communicate that growth to teachers and parents every year. Parents can still find out how their children are doing by sitting down and talking to educators who work with their children each day. Furthermore, the Colorado Growth Model or other established models can measure growth in high school without ninth grade tests.
We need a system for our high school students that shines a light on the paths forward, not on the past and what we already know. In fact, since the adoption of a “single statewide test” in grades 3-10 college remediation rates at Colorado community colleges have almost tripled from 21 percent to 37 percent.
The purpose of a state assessment system is to provide objective feedback to school and district leaders, as well as policymakers to evaluate the system, not individual students. Parents and teachers need to use a body of evidence to inform conversations about individual student growth and progress, including local and classroom assessments.
Local assessments provide accountability by ensuring timely growth toward achievement of district curriculum for every student as schools ensure reduction of achievement gaps.
With bipartisan agreement on a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on the horizon, we have an incredible opportunity for Colorado to take the lead at reducing testing and creating an equitable framework for accountability that not only provides transparency, but acknowledges that students need to be prepared to succeed in college, career, and civic life.
Although some fear that eliminating ninth grade tests creates a hole, and empty space so to speak, it won’t. Rather than fear that space as undermining the accountability framework, let’s think what an incredible opportunity Colorado has to create a new, more equitable model, one that would regain broad public support.