For all the progress that schools have made around the country when it comes to high school graduation rates, better opportunities for high-quality early childhood education, and new and improved career and technical education, we know that too many students still perform below grade level. These are challenges that all of us must work diligently to overcome.
There is no single fix to our education challenges, but if we are to address persistent achievement gaps, we need to understand how all students are performing academically — whether they are on track to be ready for the next grade and what we can do to help them get there. Annual assessments are a core component of state accountability systems and an important tool for parents, teachers, schools, state chiefs, and governors to enact the kind of change schools need.
For decades, we have been fighting to have all our students counted so that no child — especially our students of color and students from low-income communities — slipped through the cracks.
That’s why I struggle with the attempts over the past few years by naysayers to opt students out of annual assessments. Not only does it do little to improve testing policy, it also threatens the advances we’ve made toward increased equity. Specifically, when students opt out of assessments, they are removing a key way to understand if and how the school is meeting their academic needs (along with the needs of students like them). In addition, if enough students do not participate in the assessment, the school and district could be in jeopardy of losing valuable federal funds that most often benefit traditionally underserved student populations. Opting out puts students at a disadvantage — not just children of families who opt out, but all children.
As a father and as someone deeply committed to improving our education system, I recognize that our assessment system is far from perfect, but annual assessments are a critical tool for holding states accountable for meeting the needs of all students in their education system. Instead of being against all assessments, we should be for fewer, fairer, and better assessments that add value for our students and our education system.
A strong start at reducing the time students spend taking tests is to take a close look at what tests are being administered and why. As governor, I worked with other stakeholders to ensure that each of our school districts conducted an assessment audit to make certain that students weren’t taking duplicative assessments and that all assessments added value. We found that, in many cases, there was duplication between what students were assessed on at the state and district level. In some districts, the elimination of these redundancies reduced testing time by more than 13 hours, returning instructional time to our students. And since all Delaware high school juniors take the SAT, we eliminated the state assessment in that grade level.
States and school systems across the country have a responsibility to try to find the right balance of requiring assessments that help monitor student progress while eliminating unnecessary and ineffective tests.
Now, thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act, all states have the opportunity to use federal funding to conduct their own assessment audits. These audits can be a tool for states to ensure that all tests provide high-quality feedback to inform instruction and help parents and educators better serve our students.
In reading over the state plans already submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, it’s clear that stakeholders and states want to improve their assessment systems. Yet not one state has included an audit.
Assessment audits can lead to real policy change, not just headlines. I highly encourage chiefs and governors to take advantage of this opportunity and conduct their own assessment audit — particularly in states facing opt-out challenges. Let’s opt in to better policy and better tests.
Jack Markell, a Democrat, served as the governor of Delaware from 2009 to 2017. He is a former chair of the National Governors Association and was a co-chair of the initiative that established the Common Core State Standards.