Testing: Can We Find the Rational Middle?

Recently I visited Glen Iris Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama to meet with a group of teachers and their principal. I was in Birmingham as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow and it was highly recommend by local educators that I visit Glen Iris while in Birmingham to see the incredible work going on at the school. During my visit I learned about the school’s focus on project-based learning, how it energizes teachers and promotes cross-curriculum connections and implementation of college and career ready standards in a way that has significant meaning for students and the surrounding community. I learned how this type of learning relies on several factors including the internal capacity among teachers to lead and bring others along in this work and a supportive principal who will work to make sure the resources needed are provided (even grow a beard and sleep on the school roof to fundraise if necessary!). I also learned about their school garden, which was a sight to behold and a powerful a lesson for how to keep learning focused on developing the whole child.

The assessment culture was also very different at Glen Iris Elementary. It was clear that every teacher in the room agreed that we can and should measure learning, but, also, that current “tests” were measuring learning. When I asked Principal Wilson to share his views on testing he looked at me very calmly said, “There is more than one way to measure the standards. We have to be ever-growing.”

Since returning from Birmingham, much has happened in the “testing” world.

Recently, the Foundation for Excellence in Education came out with an analysis of district testing calendars from the 2013-14 school year. The foundation looked at 44 districts and found huge variation; some required as few as eight tests on top of required state assessments – and one required 198 additional exams. In addition, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Secretary Duncan have shined a spotlight on testing and are asking states and districts to have difficult conversations about the quantity and quality of tests administered to students. Also in recent weeks, several school districts in Florida have moved to cut down on testing. Miami-Dade County cut 24 interim assessments, adding 260 minutes of instruction back into the schedule, while Palm Beach County cut 11 diagnostic tests and made all district-level performance assessments optional. Moreover, Hillsborough County school district leaders are calling on the state to reduce the amount of testing in schools while several school officials have already eliminated final exams at middle and high school levels, as well as reduced the number of assessments for elementary grades in math, science and language arts.

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to hear his perspective on the current state of testing and accountability. While the testing pendulum has swung from one side to the other, my hope is that we will land somewhere in the rational middle. And as I continue in my education journey, I will forever keep those timely words of Dr. Wilson at the forefront of my mind and will challenge all of us to be “ever-growing.”

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. A rational approach would and should be a model where accountablity is pulled as a means to an end. That is, if we are truly seeking to personalize the learning that the end seeking result is to identify from the assessments what areas need attention in order to tailor the learning for each individual student. Computer adaptive assessments have shown educators that “one score doesn’t fit all,” presently anyway. Unless we begin to address needs at a personal level, gaps will persist and policy makers will not be able to move beyond using assessments as a weapon to demonize teachers. Computer adaptive assessments that provide reliable growth data are needed to provide meaningful and useful information for measuring learning and program effectiveness.

  2. I have discussed with several parents why our children are not in school for longer days. I am not speaking on the teacher side, I’m speaking of the child and parent side. A lot of parents can’t help their children during or after elementary school because they aren’t educated enough. If school was from 8-5 (they have SO many vacations), they could have PE everyday, ART everyday, Music/Band everyday, do homework at school so you have help! Family time at home would be just that…FAMILY TIME, allowing for more togetherness!! Less arguing at home esp. in single parent homes b/c (usually mothers) parents don’t have enough time in a day to help one child after working full time (let alone two or three…(not me)), cooking dinner, making sure the kids have clean uniforms for the next day and making sure other family members are doing what they are supposed to do. This doesn’t even count time for mom to get her stuff ready for the next full day of work!! Sometimes it’s 11pm or later when my son gets to bed because of the amount of homework, needing my help, which, I hate to admit, I can’t help him in Math…it’s so different than when I attended school. I am not college educated BUT my daughter is (Thank God above and her for her determination, I couldn’t help her financially but she did it!!) and this one will be also, or in a Trade..one or the other! WE will NOT be a BURDEN on SOCIETY because I refuse to allow that! I have a believe that if school was done at school, then parents wouldn’t mind so much asking their kids how school went that day…because they would know that if their was an issue the teacher would let the parent know and the parent would actually have time to discuss it in detail…because they aren’t rushing to get to the homework, which the parent knows involves their grades!! Using the 8-5 school time also gives teachers enough time during the day at the “office” that they can do everything they need to do, grade papers..etc. at the school during one of their either one or two break times. They also would get an hr for lunch or close it to and could handle business during those hours, just like the regular working class. Close for summers??? WHY?? This puts our children in the worse case situation! They then have to go back for the first 9 weeks and review what they should have learned last year, what a waist of time!! If they attended school year round, 8-5 there wouldn’t have to be 9 weeks of review! THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA NEEDS THIS INJECTION OF INTELLIGENT YOUNG PEOPLE! PLEASE STOP LETTING SCHOOLS AND THE GOVERNMENT DUMB DOWN OUR KIDS! They don’t even have history classes anymore!! How do we talk to our children about the past mistakes of the US when they don’t even discuss history? Please, please consider this parents request for EDUCATING OUR COUNTRY because unfortunately some of us aren’t educated enough to help our own children but sure do want to so we seek out to you, our government, won’t you please help make more time in school for them to have time to learn. I do not care that the kids or teachers do not like this idea, they, if you ask me get WAY to much time off during the school term…then if they get sick or are out for extended time, the kids get even further behind because using a sub teacher who doesn’t do anything but make sure that the kids aren’t killing each other happens way, way to often in the classroom (this is how my son got so far behind in Math..that and the schools just kept passing him) NO SUMMER SCHOOLS especially in smaller towns like ours, how can a child ever get caught up? He was offered an Online Class, sorry but if you can’t do the work in the classroom WHAT IN THE HECK DO YOU THINK HE’S GONNA DO AT HOME WITH AN ONLINE CLASS?? FAIL! Yes, that is what happened, you can’t give a 14 year old that fails classes an oline class, what an expense to our State and family (messed with his ego..failing it also!!)… something has got to change, SOMETHING BIG!! Even if we go into debt for this…it would be worth it…or better still get some of the interest from the GOVERNMENT RAN student loan program and use it to educate the younger generations so maybe they won’t have to suffer living poor and on government assistance, (or is that what the government wants..a weak society so you can rule us even more than you already do)…breaking the chain! It’s what I did, it’s what I will do with my son and it’s what every parent should want for their child! Please, I beg of you consider my plea. I can’t find any help for my son who is not doing well at all and losing confidence daily. I can’t afford to pay a tutor, the schools don’t offer them and no summer school…how in the world do you expect a person to ever get caught up? Please send your thoughts on my comment Secretary Duncan. I thank you in advance.
    An educational concerned, for our country’s future, rather I’m here or not, parent, Marcie Davis

    • I totally agree, school should be 8-5 Monday through Friday. I will definitely send your thoughts on to Secretary Duncan, as well as other legislature that need to hear these thoughts and ideas for solutions. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I too am concerned about our educational concerns. I’ve seen some high schoolers that never get spelling down and cannot even sign their signature (cursive). The education needs to be there. Parents, as my myself am a parent, by the time the cramming the homework is done when the kids get home, preparing dinner, its time for bed for the kids. Absolutely NO family time, which greatly concerns me. At times at least in our home, lack of more family time with stress of getting the kids’ homework done is exhausting…which leads to contention in the home from stress of trying to get everything all in before the children have to be in bed (to start the cycle all over again).

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