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For California schools, we need less testing and more assessing

Linda Darling-Hammond


There is a saying that American students are the most tested and the least examined of any in the world. Nowhere is that more true than in California, where students take 35 tests before they hit the SAT and AP exams.

Gov. Jerry Brown's call for less testing and more focus on meaningful learning is a welcome breath of sanity in an American education landscape that has appeared more and more like Alice's Wonderland. Fortunately, the state's decision to join the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium – a group of more than 20 states creating new tests – will support, rather than conflict with, these goals, as a Feb. 5 story in The Bee suggested.

No country tests its children as often as the United States: The highest achieving often have few or no tests until the end of high school. Furthermore, the tests that are used in top-ranked nations like Finland, South Korea and Singapore are open-ended essay and oral examinations. Most top systems also expect students to design and conduct extended research projects and scientific investigations.

By contrast, in California, nearly all of our current tests are limited to bubbling in answers on multiple-choice items, rather than writing well-defended responses, researching and presenting information, solving complex problems and using new technologies or other skills increasingly critical in our 21st-century society.

With punitive sanctions from the federal government attached to test scores, parents and teachers have complained for years that these important higher-order skills are often edged out of the curriculum in favor of test prep that encourages a drill-and-kill, multiple-choice curriculum. All this testing has not helped California's achievement: The state ranks in the bottom five on every national measure of achievement, far below states that test students much less and use different kinds of measures.

The Smarter Balanced tests will replace California's existing English language arts and math tests in grades three through eight, and grade 11 with new computer-assisted assessments that include more written responses from students, plus tasks that require them to engage in research, solve more complex problems and use technology. These tests will be designed to measure student growth more accurately and to return results more quickly to teachers, students and parents.

Local districts may choose to support teaching with some of the formative instructional lessons and interim assessments the consortium will offer. These will be less costly and more aligned to the Common Core standards than current products that many districts are trying to buy or create, but they will be completely optional. And, unlike current bubble tests, these lessons and assessments will foster complex-thinking and problem-solving skills, and give teachers timely feedback on how well students understand what is being taught.

California can replace up to 18 of its tests with a smaller number of these new assessments. Brown's proposal should lead us to reconsider the other 17 as well. In particular, we should rethink the science tests that – unlike those in other countries and some leading states – include no real experimentation or investigation, as well as the history and social science tests that include no real analysis of historical events or extended reading and writing about important social issues.

Many schools and districts in California have already developed exciting, intellectually rigorous projects and assessments for students in these and other subjects. Envision Schools, New Tech and High Tech High Schools, Linked Learning schools, and many others require their students to engage in the kind of science and technology assessments that are used in Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland and other high-flying nations. Their outcomes show that they are preparing their students to be truly college- and career-ready. Shouldn't we do this for all our students?

The governor's call to tap local initiative and creativity should encourage us to look to our own pioneers for ways to focus schools on the kind of learning that will matter for our children's – and California's – future.

This op-ed is cross-posted from The Sacramento Bee.