RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's been a high-stakes year for high-stakes standardized tests taken by students in public schools. The debate over the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, turned in part on whether annual testing would remain a federal mandate. Ultimately, the overhaul passed with the tests still in place. On the other hand, this fall, President Obama released a Testing Action Plan. He's calling for states to cut down unnecessary testing that creates, quote, "undue stress for educators and students." For more on the changes we're likely to see in school testing in 2016, we turned to Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team who's been following these issues very closely. Good morning.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And annual tests are still in place. So what's different now?
KAMENETZ: What's really different are the stakes. So instead of the federal government, as it did under No Child Left Behind, mandating that every single child perform at grade level and dictating the sanctions for schools where students are falling behind, now every state can pretty much set up its own plan for improving schools. And at the same time, states are encouraged a little bit to deemphasize test scores in their accountability formulas in favor of multiple measures of student success like behavior, attendance, graduation rates, even student surveys.
MONTAGNE: It sounds a little bit more relaxed, but does that mean testing and test prep is likely to fade?
KAMENETZ: Well, it's hard to say. You know, the Department of Education and the president have been putting out the message that there's too much testing. And they're certainly responded to the public in that way. And they're providing resources in this bill for states to audit and to streamline their testing programs. The problem is that many, many districts have to wait - sometimes for months - before they get their state test scores. So they still need to give their own diagnostic tests in order to get information they can use in the classroom. And as long as test scores remain linked to accountability measures, districts will still want to give benchmark and practice tests and spend time prepping students. And it's all this district-level testing and the prepping that really does seem to pile up and add to the stress on students.
MONTAGNE: And how exactly does the Common Core relate to all of this testing?
KAMENETZ: Well, you know, I think a lot of the stress isn't just about the sheer number of tests but also around all the changes in state policies. And the Common Core of course is really central to that. So initially, as a part of the run-up to the Common Core, boosters said that if states adopted the same standards and just a handful of aligned tests that we would simplify testing and get scores that we could compare across states. But that hasn't happened. Instead, there's been a really chaotic process of states picking up and dropping the standards, picking up and dropping various tests. And according to a report this year, 65 percent of the biggest school districts in the country saw a change in their big state tests in the last five years. So not only can we not compare performance across many, many states, the same districts can't compare their own performance to five years ago.
MONTAGNE: And what about the politics of testing? Because this has become quite politicized... Will they opt out movement - continue to grow?
KAMENETZ: You know, even as the opt out movement has been running high, last spring in states like New York national polls reported that a majority of Americans don't support sitting kids out of mandated tests. And one important political change in the new federal law is that states no longer have to make test scores a central part of teacher evaluations. And it was this one issue, the linking of test scores to teacher evaluations, that really mobilized teacher unions in particular against tests. And so I think that even if the new law doesn't cut back on testing, it may have effectively neutralized some of the opposition to testing.
MONTAGNE: Anya, thanks very much.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team.
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