Do Tests Improve Learning? Poor Families Think So -- More Than Wealthier Ones

Do Tests Improve Learning? Poor Families Think So -- More Than Wealthier Ones
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In this Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 photo, teacher Nicoleen Winklarek works with students in a seventh grade accelerated math class at Holy Spirit School in East Greenbush, N.Y. The Diocese of Albany, New York, announced that it will reduce the frequency of the Common Core-aligned tests while sticking with the standards. The decision coincides with a call by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for "€œa total reboot" of the Common Core after his state became the epicenter of anti-testing sentiment. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

The much-maligned student testing could actually reveal social disparities and potentially unite diverse communities, according to a new report.

Major gaps exist in how low-income versus middle- and high-income communities view student testing, according to a report released today by Northwest Evaluation Association and Gallup. NWEA and Gallup’s data show that low-income parents think state tests improve learning despite the opt-out movement, and the movement itself isn’t necessarily moving the needle at the school and district levels.

One-third of parents with a household income under $60,000 indicated that they believe state standardized tests improve learning, compared with a mere 16 percent of parents with a household income between $60,000 and $89,999, and 17 percent of parents with household incomes between $90,000 and $119,999.

The data support recent reports that low-income and minority communities tend to opt out of tests much less than their higher-income and white counterparts. Last year, 12 civil rights groups came together to publicly denounce anti-testing efforts, arguing that student assessments are critical to expanding educational opportunities for students across the country.

“The view that accountability testing advances equity by forcing schools to grapple with achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status helps explain why lower-income parents are more likely than higher income parents to agree or strongly agree that state tests improve learning,” the NWEA and Gallup researchers write.

Educators working in low-income districts, however, are more likely to worry about too much testing than those who teach in middle- and high-income districts. This difference in perception across teachers and parents in the same communities, researchers say, show that while the potential exists for closing opportunity gaps with tests, the connection between promoting equity through assessments isn’t perfectly linear. And overall, teachers, principals, and superintendents worry far more than parents and students about overtesting. 

While this finding could ease concerns among educators and policymakers that testing aversely affects students, researchers note that further study is necessary for conclusion.

With the newly signed Every Student Succeeds Act, No Child Left Behind’s power-to-the-states successor, the pressure is even greater on states to create and implement effective accountability systems that address equity. ESSA also requires states assess schools using metrics beyond test scores, including in areas like school climate, which could weight resources toward schools that serve more low-income and minority students.

Most school leaders, however, are not yet familiar with ESSA, and only 53 percent of superintendents and 32 percent of principals believe the new law will have a positive impact on their schools, according to the survey. And while testing critics applauded ESSA for reeling in standardized tests, most education leaders said the number of tests administered likely won’t change.

There are broad fundamental differences among stakeholders. Most educators said they don’t believe that policymakers understand the purpose of various types of assessment, nor do they believe parents understand the diagnostics teachers use to assess and address student progress.    

“This is a shared responsibility, and we are actively pursuing different avenues to ensure that all parties have the information they need to make informed choices about student’ progress and educational options,” CEO Matt Chapman told RealClearEducation.

Across the board, researchers said, communication is key. Educators must collaborate with one another on assessment results to drive instruction, but they need sufficient training and data coaches to be able to use the data from assessments effectively. Two-thirds of principals surveyed said their school does not have a data coach. Of those who reported having a data coach, 82 percent said it has resulted in improvements in teacher practice, and 71 percent said it led to better student learning.

Teachers, principals, and superintendents must also communicate with parents, researchers said, noting that leaders from the district to federal levels should create opportunities for regular dialogue among stakeholders on assessments

"This is a complex issue and it is important that all voices be at the table, particularly during ESSA implementation, to address [these gaps in understanding]," Chapman said. "We have a golden moment for reset, and we should not miss it."

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