Last week education policy watchers saw a number of calls for a re-assessment of the assessments we’re giving to students in public school. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and Council of Great City Schools (CGCS) announced an effort to “improve the quality and quantity of standardized tests.” The Center for American Progress (CAP) released a paper with findings on the amount of time students spend taking tests and recommendations for students to take fewer, higher quality standardized tests. The ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), shared changes to ESEA that he would consider should he become chair of the HELP Committee. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a statement and published an op-ed welcoming this new focus on improving assessments. Even President Obama weighed in, stating that he supports efforts to “cut back on unnecessary testing and test preparation, while promoting smarter use of tests that measure real student learning.”

Largely absent from this conversation, however, are the underlying causes of over testing and the only way to fix it: federal accountability systems that put undue importance on standardized tests.

It is clear that a re-examination of the frequency and the type of standardized tests in this country is necessary. A recent study found that students spent between 19 school days and a month and a half of school days on test prep and testing in the heavily tested grades, a substantial loss of classroom learning time that contributes to reduced content knowledge and narrowed curriculum that excludes subjects that are not tested, such as foreign languages and the arts. Standardized tests also cost states about $1.7 billion per year, which could be better spent on student supports or improving instruction, yet GPA is a better predictor of college performance than standardized test scores. As a result, there is a growing movement of students, parents, teachers, and school boards across the country deciding to “opt-out” of standardized tests.

Other advanced countries that score better than the U.S. on international exams do not test their students even once a year, yet in America students in grades 3 through 8 take an average of 10 standardized tests every year, according to the CAP report. What do those 10 assessments each year tell us? Students from high-income families do better than students from low-income families, and those gaps persist no matter how many tests they take.

Like a doctor treating the symptoms instead of curing the illness, the conversation has largely focused only on the exams instead of why students are subjected to so many standardized tests and how to actively improve student achievement. A solution to both issues is improving federal accountability to reduce the focus on test scores and better include those characteristics of education that improve student outcomes.

Why Students take so many Standardized Tests

The focus on test scores is largely a result of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Though the federal accountability system established under NCLB is based on the laudable goal of increasing achievement and equity for every child, the means for reaching this goal is setting annual targets for success on multiple-choice tests with consequences for schools that miss those targets.

This reliance on standardized tests for federal accountability continued with NCLB waivers issued to 44 states and a consortium of districts by the U.S. Department of Education. While waiver applications included other requirements, student achievement based on assessments (including basing high-stakes decisions like educator evaluations on value-added measures that the American Statistical Association cautions against) is paramount. In fact, Washington lost their waiver over testing. The state allows districts to decide which test scores are used in teacher evaluations instead of requiring state test scores to be included in teacher evaluations, as the U.S. Department of Education required. This is a clear sign of the value the U.S. Department of Education places on standardized test scores, and when the federal Department of Education threatens consequences for low test scores or for not following federal requirements on standardized tests, state departments of education, school districts, and schools respond by focusing on standardized tests above all else.

Though student achievement has been improving for decades (for example, 80 percent of students graduate high school in four years, more than ever before, and scores on the nationally administered NAEP exam have been consistently rising), achievement gaps between student subgroups persist. These subgroups include low-income students, students of color, limited English proficient (LEP) students, and students with disabilities. Gaps are clear in disparities in graduation rates (the 4-year graduation rate is 86 percent for white students, 73 percent for Hispanic students, 69 percent for Black students, 72 percent for low-income students, 59 percent for LEP students, and 61 percent for students with disabilities) and NAEP scores in grades 4, 8, and 12. Furthermore, U.S. achievement on international tests such as Program for International Student Assessment, which tests how students apply knowledge through problem solving (presumably what the higher quality exams called for above would do), has fallen between 2000 and 2012. Over-reliance on standardized test scores as the basis for federal accountability has resulted in the over-testing that CCSSO, CGCS, CAP, Senator Alexander, Secretary Duncan, and President Obama highlighted last week and has not reduced achievement gaps between student subgroups.

Changing the Tests is not Enough

Changing the number and type of tests is necessary, but alone it will not reduce the reliance on standardized assessments for accountability and therefore not substantially change state and district over-reliance on standardized tests. Federal law (NCLB and now NCLB waivers) requires States and districts to focus on standardized tests; just changing the tests means they will simply focus on improving student test scores on the improved exams.

Nor will only changing the type and number of tests help close the academic achievement gap. Even with the best tests administered on a reasonable testing schedule, students who attend underfunded schools staffed with inexperienced and untrained teachers will do worse than their peers in schools with better resources. In other words, regardless of what the standardized test looks like, if nothing else changes they will continue only to show that low-income students, students of color, LEP students, and students with disabilities do worse on standardized tests than wealthier students and white students.

In addition to states and districts reducing the number of tests to which students are subjected and making those tests a better measure of critical thinking and applying knowledge, the federal government should change its school accountability structure by shifting the focus of accountability to ensuring every school gives every student the opportunity to succeed. The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education recently released a paper and policy brief to develop a new paradigm of federal accountability for college and career readiness. In addition to better assessments, it calls for more equitable and adequate resources, greater capacity among schools and educators, and a more effective model for change and improvement. Similarly, Senator Jack Reed’s Core Opportunity Resources for Equity and Excellence Act expands federal accountability to include characteristics that improve student achievement. This is a much more complete solution to the issues facing students, teachers, schools, and school districts.

Policymakers, states, and districts should absolutely improve the quality of the standardized tests students take and reduce the number of those tests, but we shouldn’t stop there. To reduce over-reliance on exams and improve student outcomes policymakers need to change the federal accountability system to prioritize not only better assessments, but also access to those things that improve student achievement, such as adequate resources and educator capacity.