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One way to reduce standardized test load--make them shorter

Terry Paul, co-founder with his wife Judi of Renaissance Learning, Inc., gave me recently a draft of a short paper he has written suggesting a way to reduce the strain of state testing under the No Child Left Behind Act, or whatever replaces it. He says we should emulate the tests his company's Accelerated Reader program gives to ensure students understand books they have read. That means making the tests short, maybe as little as 15 minutes.

This idea is too wild to go anywhere, but Paul is no nut. He is a thoughtful businessman who helped create the nation's most successful program for encouraging book reading. He notes research that indicates a 15 minute test can "provide similar reliability to a 50 minute paper assessment."

I can't find his paper, "Thoughts on Testing Arising from the Common Core State Standards Movement," anywhere on the Internet. When it goes up I will let you know. He applauds the hard work states are doing to produce learning standards and tests they can all agree on. But if that happens, he says, they should start testing quickly and try to shorten testing time so even schools with few computers can have their kids take the exams online.

Although he doesn't exactly say so, I sense he hopes this will bring to this enterprise the wonders of adaptive testing---computerized exams that change questions depending on how the child is performing and pinpoint weaknesses to help teachers.

If the common core standards are ready this spring, he says, the first tests based on them should be given to everyone the following spring. This can be done by including in the first tests just those elements that are ready to go, and add more complex features later.

He said he recognizes that the purpose of the state tests--often called summative tests--is to measure how well schools and districts are doing. But there could also be interim tests--often called formative tests-- that adhere to the standards, but produce quick results that teachers can use. "With a shorter, more efficient summative test coupled with more and better interim assessments, the overall testing system can be more balanced and coherent, and just plain better to accelerate student achievement," he wrote.

I am one of those skeptics that don't believe the common core standards are ever going to succeed, because they are being drawn up by committees. But I could be wrong. If they figure out a way to make shorter, smarter and more useful tests, that would merit some attention.

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By Jay Mathews  | December 23, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Accelerated Reader, Terry Paul, computer adaptive tests, formative tests, shortening tests, state tests, summative tests  
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Mr. Paul's on the right track but still hasn't reached the holy grail.

Computers provide the means by which testing can be turned from either an annual audit or an ad hoc measure of dubious validity into a precise and timely measuring instrument.

Think "speedometer" - rapid, even instantaneous, feedback on how well a student, a curriculum, a teacher or a principal's doing rather then "annual report".

Posted by: allenm1 | December 23, 2009 7:33 AM | Report abuse

This actually makes a lot of sense. The other value of such a program is that it will tell you a teacher;'s effectiveness much earlier in the process. This would allow intervention and removal as needed. The one issue I don't think is yet ready is how the test infrastructure would be developed.

Posted by: Brooklander | December 23, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

The good idea of shorter runs up against the issue of quality. Shorter usually means having just a few multiple-choice questions. This perpetuates the terrible idea that learning can be reduced to those kinds of questions.

Good teachers regularly evaluate student learning using various kinds of assessments, provide clear feedback, and help students reflect on their own learning. That is not what Jay describes here.

The real solution to the problem of too-long standardized tests is to strengthen teacher capacity to assess well as part of teaching well. Unfortunately, the testing craze undermines teacher competence and fails to build a strong teaching force. With greater teacher skills, we could indeed use shorter tests -- but simply as a dipstick indicator,one check on the system. Outside evaluators could examine random samples of of actual student work as the main evidence of student success. Trust, but verify, would be the approach.

Perhaps in an effort to explain to non-educators, Jay treats formative and interm assessments as the same thing. They are distinct. Formative assessment was recently defined by an international group of experts: "Assessment for Learning is part of everyday practice by students, teachers and peers that seeks, reflects upon and responds to information from dialogue, demonstration and observation in ways that enhance ongoing learning." A short paper then explains the definitions. (See

Interim are mini-summative, usually multiple-choice tests given periodically (say once every 4, 6 or 12 weeks). Many are of very low quality. A chapter in the book Meaningful Measurement discusses these tests. This book also has a good chapter of formative assessment as well. See, you can download the chapters.)

Sorry to suggest complexity - but education is not simple, and simple solutions are usually bad solutions.

Monty Neill

Posted by: montyneill | December 23, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

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