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NH’s new way to assess student learning could reduce standardized testing – Bill Duncan in the Concord Monitor

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A national debate has broken out about standardized testing.  Everyone seems to agree that the over-testing driven by No Child Left Behind has been a mistake.  The question is, what now?  New Hampshire has for years been piloting a next generation approach to testing and has a lot to offer in this discussion.

Here’s my opinion piece on it as it appeared in the Concord Monitor today:

We’ve been hearing a lot about testing in our schools. There were proposals in the last Legislature – unsuccessful in the end – to postpone the new Smarter Balanced annual assessment. Nashua teachers made news last winter saying that neither their schools nor their students were ready for the new Common Core test (though fears seemed to settle down after they tried the test last spring). And Manchester Mayor Gatsas feels his city should not have to take the test.

There is actually no way for a community to opt out of the annual statewide assessment. For the past 14 years, the No Child Left Behind act has required states to test every child every year in grades three through eight and one year in high school.

But there is now wide agreement that we are over testing and that it has done more harm than good.

Our teaching became illogical 
with the advent of No Child Left Behind 
because we were so concerned 
with adequate yearly progress. 
It became a data circus.

Sue Hannan, a longtime English teacher at Manchester’s Hillside Middle School, spoke for many when she told me: “Our teaching became illogical with the advent of No Child Left Behind because we were so concerned with adequate yearly progress. It became a data circus.”

New Hampshire is in the forefront 
of a movement to reduce 
overuse of standardized testing

Even tester-in-chief U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on his blog recently: “I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools. . . . This is one of the biggest changes education in this country has ever seen.”

But New Hampshire is in the forefront of a movement to reduce overuse of standardized testing and put the responsibility back where it belongs, with our teachers and schools.

New Hampshire Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Paul Leather pointed out at a national press briefing featuring New Hampshire’s testing strategy last week: “We hear a lot about over-testing because we are running two accountability systems. We have the state accountability system, required by federal law. But that may not help us find out what we need to do to improve teaching and learning. And then we have local accountability systems to improve teaching and learning. We want to bring those together.”

A simple statement, but a big assignment that the New Hampshire Department of Education has been working on for years. They have consulted with everyone from New Hampshire school leaders to the most influential education leaders in the country about how to support local school districts in creating their own ways to assess students’ progress, while still demonstrating that they are reaching all their students.

And now four New Hampshire school districts – Sanborn, Rochester, Epping and Souhegan – are making it work. And Concord, Pittsfield and others are getting ready.

The idea is that, eventually, districts able to do their own assessments would give the statewide Smarter Balanced test only once in elementary school and once in middle school. High schools could possibly choose between Smarter Balanced and, say, the SAT.

The schools are creating their own ways to assess and report on how well students are learning in the other years. They are doing that by going back to good, traditional teaching. They are giving students real-world tasks that demonstrate their ability to use what they are learning. Students will need to do more than recall facts. They will need to put it all together to solve a problem their own way.

In English, for instance, middle school students might submit research papers showing that they know how to analyze and present information from many sources.

In math, maybe fourth-graders would design and cost out a new park and write a letter to their board of selectmen explaining their calculations.

“performance tasks” are 
no longer tests set aside 
from learning time 
but are part of learning.

These “performance tasks,” as they are called, are no longer tests set aside from learning time but are part of learning. Instead of choosing among predetermined options, students must construct an answer. The only way to prepare for this “test” is to get better knowledge and skills. And teachers can see right away how well that is going.

The possibilities are endless. Projects could be different for each student to match their interests and needs. They’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate creativity, show how they work with others and manage their own learning. All this is seldom possible on a traditional test.

A lot has to happen to make all this possible.

First, Arne Duncan has to agree. A group of district and department leaders met with him recently and came away with a sense that New Hampshire might well get federal agreement to test these new ideas.

And the New Hampshire Legislature would have to support the idea. But just about everyone is interested in alternatives to standardized testing, so maybe that’s a possibility.

It’s like the difference between the multiple choice part of your driving test and really showing that you can parallel park.

(Bill Duncan is a New Castle resident and member of the New Hampshire State Board of Education. His opinions are his own.)

My Turn: State’s new way to assess student learning could reduce standardized testing | Concord Monitor.


  1. smarion2014 says:

    While I’m certainly an advocate of being smart about how and when to use state tests, I’m afraid that most “over-testing” is the result of choices made at the local level. For example, in my local district there were 11 required assessments for elementary reading and math. After a review, we pared this down to 4 assessments.

    All assessments can lead to charges of over-testing if the results are not used to inform instruction and/or evaluate programs. What we really lack is wide-spread assessment literacy to allow local educators design/select appropriate assessment and then, most importantly, to learn how to properly interpret and use the results effectively. Not an easy lift, but the kind of work being done in the districts participating in the accountability pilot is designed to increase this type of assessment literacy.

    • Bill Duncan says:

      I would agree that testing does get out of hand based on district choices each of which, taken separately, may seem logical. However, I also think the term “over-testing” applies to a federally mandated state test of every child every year for six straight years.

  2. wgersen says:

    Bill- As I believe you know, I am a staunch opponent of the standardized testing regimen that started with NCLB and went into warp drive with RTTT. I REALLY hope NH pulls this off… but it would be such a HUGE precedent the I doubt that Arnie Duncan will give a green light… especially since his boss just said last week that “assessments are one part of a fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools” (see this post for details:… and it’s hard to do “value added measures (VAM)” for teachers and AYP for schools unless you test annual… and USDOE seems determined to make everyone use VAM in some way, shape or form. Oh, and ASSUMING Duncan gives an OK, a lot depends on next Tuesday in terms of the State legislature’s attitude toward testing. Here’s hoping NH jumps both of these hurdles!

    • Bill Duncan says:

      I believe USED is giving the NH proposal serious because the PACE districts have done credible work in performance assessments.

      We’ll know soon.

      • smarion2014 says:

        Let’s also remember that unless someone is going to put up a boat-load of money for creating tests for every subject and grade and figuring out ways for dealing with small sample sizes in things like elective classes, then 70% or more of teachers won’t able to be evaluated using VAM or student growth percentiles. So as much as some folks want to VAM everyone, they can’t so the door to more sane approaches like student learning objectives (SLO) already offer a way to deal with not have state tests every year.

        Bill, I agree that “over-testing” refers to federal mandates, but I’m suggesting that’s because the state tests are the easy target. I agree that we need to be looking at state tests, but we better look at all of these silly commercially-available interim tests that people like because they make it look like kids are “growing,” except such “growth” doesn’t transfer to anything else. OK, I’ll stop my rant now:-)

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