Testing Tester: A Move to Grade-Span Testing Means At-Risk Students Won’t Count – Especially in Montana


April 29, 2015

By Charles Barone

One of the few wins on accountability found in the ESEA reauthorization bill reported out of the Senate HELP Committee two weeks ago was the maintenance of annual, statewide testing in grades 3-8. As I anticipated in December, “annual testing” turned out to be a big red herring that distracted everyone’s attention from other equally important issues. As a result, significant things still need to be done to make sure the “Every Child Achieves” Act ultimately lives up to its name.

Related: Annual Testing in ESEA Reauthorization: A Red Herring?



Unfortunately, some in Congress want to move the accountability goalpost even farther backward. In the Senate, Democrat John Tester of Montana has introduced a bill to make annual testing optional. Instead, he proposes grade-span testing, where states would only have to test students in math and reading three times: once in elementary school, middle school, and high school. Based on reporting last week at the Washington Post and Education Week, he seems dead serious about bringing it to the floor for a vote.

Tester, a former elementary school music teacher, seems to have arrived at his position honestly. But that doesn’t make his effort any less misguided, especially by his own criteria.

Related: The 50th Anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Act

According to the Washington Post, Tester said: “Students shouldn’t be spending most of their time in schools filling out bubbles.” Actually, Montana students aren’t spending anywhere close to that amount of time taking tests. According to the Montana Department of Education, the new state assessments in math and reading being implemented this spring will take a total of six hours for elementary students and 7.5 hours for high school students out of approximately 1,000 total hours of instructional time per year. And they’re not “fill-in-the-bubble tests” either. They’re computer-adaptive assessments that include performance tasks to assess higher-order thinking.

Tester also expressed concern about at-risk students:

We have a lot of Native American kids at risk, they need attention…If you have a state that’s going to ignore certain segments of the population, I can assure you the federal government coming in and doing mandates is not going to make it be accountable.

Actually, a federally-required annual, statewide assessment is the only way to make sure Native American students count at all. For purposes of statistical reliability, unless there are at least 30 Native American students in a school, their results are barred from even be reported. Currently (a note of thanks here to our friends at Third Way for this data), under annual testing in grades 3-8, only half of the 22 elementary schools in Billings, Montana (the largest Montana district with over 16,000 students) can count separately the performance of Native American and Latino students.

Under the grade-span testing that Tester proposes, because fewer grades and thus fewer students would be assessed each year, none of the 22 elementary schools in Billings could count the performance of Native-American or Latino students – or for that matter any other subgroups – because their subgroup sizes would be too small. In fact, under grade-span testing, only white, non-disabled, English-speaking students in Billings would meet the n-size requirement of 30.

There are other problems. The National Education Association supports Tester’s amendment. But unlike Tester, their efforts here are disingenuous and are intended, pure and simple, to sabotage state education reform efforts. The NEA and others argue, and we agree, that schools should be judged based on the academic growth or progress of students. But grade-span testing makes including student growth in accountability systems impossible. You can’t have it both ways.

Related: Equitable Distribution of High-Quality Teachers in ESEA Reauthorization

The sooner the Tester amendment is tabled, the better. We need to get to thus-far unaddressed and fundamentally important accountability issues.