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The 2% Solution and US Standardized Testing

In the United States, President Obama, perhaps in response to the growing unease in American society about standardized tests, has come up with what might be called the 2% solution. That’s the cap that was recommended be placed on standardized tests. Two percent…initially seems great. But now let’s think about it. How much time does 2% take up? Well, suppose the school year is 190 days with a 5 hour school day. Two percent takes up about 19 hours. So, that’s about four full days of standardized testing. How does that compare to what is happening in the United States now? According to some school district information in the New York Daily News, testing takes up between 20 to 25 hours with testing in Pre-K to second grade taking 4.8 to 11.9 hours and 12th grade taking 15.9 hours with all other grades taking 20.6 to 22.5 hours. So, the 2% solution doesn’t represent a staggering change.

As the media rush to focus on the great headline of the 2% solution, they might also do well to listen to the other points in President Obama’s communication. There are several of them highlighted in the press release. “Assessments must be: worth taking...high quality...time-limited...fair—and supportive of fairness—in equity in educational opportunity...fully transparent to students and parents...just one of multiple measures...[and] tied to improved learning.”

Much attention has focused on three topics from this press release and video:

1) Students should only be taking “tests that are worth taking.” So, if a test really doesn’t contribute to the improvement of teaching and learning, then it should not be administered. Of course the big catch is what it means to improve teaching and learning and this, of course, depends on which educational experts get to say what it means to improve teaching and learning. One this is for sure, if what is meant is the improvement of standardized test scores, then a circular kind of argument entails, and the effort to make change will fall apart.

2) “Tests shouldn’t occupy too much classroom time.” This is the 2% solution part that captured the media’s attention. The question really is, “How much is too much?” If 2% represents 19 hours, and of course this time will vary depending on the total hours in the school day across school districts, that means that nearly four full days will be spent directly on the standardized tests. What isn’t accounted for in the 2% solution is how much time will be spent preparing for those four days of testing. We can speculate mightily. However, it turns out that an American Federation of Teachers report, which incidentally finds that about 20 hours are spent on standardized testing, also says that between 60 to 100 hours are spent on preparation for standardized tests. So, all of a sudden the 2% solution has now become the 8 % to 12.5% solution! President Obama is asking for the stop sign to be help up on standardized testing and, embedded in the press release are comments about the reduction of “low quality” test preparation efforts. However, what is really needed is a U-turn approach where the goal is to reverse the total amount of time spent on standardized testing and drastically reduce the total amount of time spent on test preparation.

3) Standardized tests are “only one source” of information about teaching and learning. This recommendation is an effort to leverage down the high stakes applications of standardized tests but also to ensure that any decisions about teaching and learning are based on a suite of assessments that, if thought about well, can be used to make sensible claims about teaching and learning. One example of a discussion of what multiple measures might be used can be found in a discussion paper by William Mathis of the University of Colorado Boulder in which he talks about the care needed in implementing multiple assessment measures and argues that all assessments must be paired with opportunities to learn—that is the provisioning of adequate support for teaching and learning.

Fundamentally, what the discussion about assessment needs to be about is on “knowing well”--how to think about assessment in all of its complexity, understanding that no assessment measure will provide a full index of learning. Given our understanding that every assessment instrument has flaws, we also need to be mindful of “doing well” with what we know. Knowing well, and doing well…two ideas that I think need to enter the discourse on educational assessment.

Non-linked References

(I have been working away on this idea of knowing well and doing well for a few years now and here is some of my work)

Murphy, S. (2013). Towards knowing well and doing well: Assessment in early childhood education. In N. Hall, J Larson, & J. Marsh (Eds.), Handbook of early childhood literacy (2nd ed.; pp. 561-574). London: Sage.

Murphy, S. (2009). Knowing and doing well in the creation and interpretation of reading assessments: Towards epistemic responsibility. In P. Anders (Ed.), Defying convention, inventing the future in literacy research and practice: A tribute to Ken and Yetta Goodman (pp. 173-187). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Murphy, S. (2009). Matters of goodness: Knowing well and doing well in the assessment of critical thinking. In J. Sobocan & L. Groarke (Eds.), Critical thinking education and assessment: Can higher order thinking be tested? (pp. 331-339) London, ON: Althouse Press.

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