High Stakes Litmus Test

It’s nearly impossible these days to have a conversation with someone about public schools that doesn’t involve testing. At some point it’s highly likely that the symbol for “education” will shift from a flame or an apple to a Scantron sheet.

The term “testing” itself has changed over time in the American lexicon. People that use the term “testing” today are usually referring to so-called high-stakes tests. As the name suggests, a high-stakes test has important consequences for the test taker, as well as the teacher, school, district and state of the test taker. These are tests that determine whether a student will be promoted, whether a teacher will be retained or whether a school earns the correct grade to keep the neighborhood property values high.

There are about as many opinions on testing as there are standardized tests- especially in Florida. The last thing the world needs is another teacher’s opinion on testing so I’m not going to do that here.

What I am going to do, however, is to give you some historical perspective about testing by comparing the testing experiences of two fourth grade students attending a public school in Hillsborough County, FL thirty years apart. I know these students quite well as one is me and one is my son.

In 1984, I began the school year as a fourth grade student at the newly opened Lopez Elementary in Seffner, FL. As best as I can remember, testing during my school year was fairly typical of most experiences before No Child Left Behind. I was given tests on the core academic subjects of the time – reading, math, science, social studies- at the completion of the chapter, usually once a month. Our class also had weekly spelling tests. Most of the writing I recall was creative writing. This may be because it was, and still is, my favorite genre of writing.

Near the end of the school year we were given our “state” test- the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, or CTBS. As a student I remember being aware of the test during the school year, mostly because I had an older brother and knew that he’d taken the same test in fourth grade previously. As best I can recall, the CTBS included two days of reading, two days of math and one day of a memorization-like vocabulary test that included nonsense words. To this day, I still remember that a “baloo” is a bear and “wuzzle” means to mix. (1)

That’s all I remember about testing. No stress, no stakes, no concerns from my parents or teachers. No pep rallies at the school, no pep talks from my principal. (For the record, I’ve been in contact with several teachers that were working in my school district during this time and they confirm my recollection.)

My son began the fourth grade this school year. I’ve checked with his teachers and my assistant principal and I have confirmed that he is taking the following tests this school year:



Approximately 30 monthly “chapter” tests in the core academic areas: reading, writing, math & science Determine content mastery
Three sessions of the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading Demonstrate mastery of the Florida Standards

Provide data to the state on student reading performance

Three science formative assessments developed by the school district Demonstrate mastery of the Florida Standards

Provide a VAM score for his teacher

Three math formative assessments developed by the school district Evaluate progress towards mastery of the Florida Standards

Try to predict how he’ll perform on the FSA

Two language arts interim assessments developed by the school district Evaluate progress towards mastery of the Florida Standards

Try to predict how he’ll perform on the FSA

Two writing interim assessments developed by the school district Evaluate progress towards mastery of the Florida Standards

Try to predict how he’ll perform on the FSA

Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) in reading, writing and math Demonstrate mastery of the Florida Standards

Provide a VAM score for his teachers

End-of-year assessments in art, music and physical education Provide a VAM score for his teachers


Assuming only one test per day (because instruction still needs to take place every day) that’s approximately 51 days of the 180-day school year that he’s taking some sort of test. I only wish I were exaggerating. (2)

Fortunately, my son is performing at or above grade level. If he were a struggling student, he’d be taking more tests as dictated by the state and district’s Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (3) intervention model. He would have additional tests every 1-3 weeks depending on his level of support.

I’m not nostalgic for the education system to return to the way it was 30 years ago. That system failed many of our students, including my brother. I do, however, long for the days when students had time to learn and teachers had time to teach.

The only accountability that our current accountability system has is to itself. We’re giving some tests to gauge student performance on future tests and other tests to gauge teacher performance based on student performance on tests. Testing students has become a litmus test for what we seem to value- more tests. Surely we can do better.


1. Out of curiosity I searched Google for these test phrases. If you’re nostalgic there are all kinds of references to these phrases- from blogs to t-shirts and more.

2. The testing calendar for all grade levels of Hillsborough County Public Schools can be found here: http://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/calendar/print/14/?-1

3. Multi-tiered Systems of Support, Hillsborough County Public Schools. http://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/doc/215


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  • Elizabeth Hughes

    Response to Julie Hiltz

    I am sorry, but your editorial really is biased and not indicative of a true comparison of your rememberance of your, and your child's, assessment calendar in a school year.


    You see, I too am a parent of two elementary school children.  I also went through public schools, but in California.  In the 1980's I took the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS) every spring.  This was actually a set of tests that covered Pre-reading, reading, writing, spelling, language, math, reference skills, science and social science.  I also was required to take additional assessments at the class and school level.  End of chapter tests for my textbooks, writing assessments, math tests, physical fitness tests, tests of musical knowledge, etc.  Conceivably, I could have been tested on some topic 50 of 180 school days as well.  And I definitely don't feel harmed, or that it was in the way of my learning.


    The standardized tests of today, and the way that they are developed for use in classrooms, are actually much better than what we had as kids.  The standards they are built upon are more precise for today's employment demands, and are built looking forward, not backward. The only issue I have with the current standardized tests, is how they were meant to be used, and how they are being used in some places.  In some places, there have been implementation decisions made that are punitive and possibly harmful to students, teachers, and schools- and this is a critical issue.  It should be addressed by instituting quality education policy, not by throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


    You describe an idyllic past in comparison to the current subjectification of your child to these frequent tests.  I am sorry, but having spent almost a decade as a teacher in the classroom, that is not the state of education today. And one fact you fail to recognize is that quality instruction DEMANDS assessement as a function of quality and improvement of practice.  


    There is a political agenda in action today to dismantle standards, testing, and all things "accountability." Why?  Why should standards that are built to improve educational practice, tests that are built to determine if that education is working, and accountability metrics which are built to demonstrate attainment of those goals (using public dollars), not be something embedded in the public system available for all to see? There are facets of that system that do not want to be publically accountable.  These groups seem to be the loudest about this debate.


    My daughters will be taking their statewide assessment this spring.  They are not stressed about it.  I have not made them stressed about it.  Their teachers have not made them stressed about it.  It is one piece of data in a compilation of information I will have as a parent, and their teachers will have as their educators, to make inferences about their learning, and set new targets for growth.  That's it. No drumroll, no drama.

    • JulieHiltz


      Thank you for your comments. If I somehow gave the impression that I was against standards, testing or accountability that was not my intention. In fact, I have been an outspoken advocate for the Common Core Standards and have written other blogs about my experiences here and here and here. I have no lost love for the education system of 30 years ago. That system failed my brother and countless others. I also have little concerns about the FSA that will be given this year. 

      What I am asking is this: At what point are we testing too much? And by that I mean, testing to the point where we have little or no time to teach or reteach concepts? 

    • RobynAtContinental

      Hi Julie,

      Hi Julie,

      The topic of testing is a struggle that many teachers, schools, and parents grapple with constantly. While testing in schools is quite necessary, it is shocking when looking at the actual breakdown that you noted: 51 days of testing out of 180 total days of school. The point you brought up about students needing more time to learn and teachers needing more time to teach rang true. Teachers and students would benefit from more dedicated time to learning.

       -Robyn Matus


  • Faye Cook


    Julie, What a great comparison.  My school recollections go back about twice as far as yours, and I have very little recall of tests other than those taken at the end of a unit of study.  My son's (both in their 30's) experience was similar to yours.   I was teaching when my youngest son was in fourth grade and the stress of today's tests definately was not part of his experience.  We may not need to go back, but we definately need a new future for today's youth.  The creativity we want in our students does not have much room to bloom in today's climate. Thanks for a great article that puts the testing climate contrast in true perspective. 

    • JulieHiltz

      Not a straight comparison


      I think you hit on an import point in this conversation as well- creativity. It makes me think about one of the goals of the CCSS: dynamic learning. The simple questions I had on my tests years ago are no true comparison to the multistep questions and application of knowledge that we are likely to experience on the new assessments. To that point, does that help make the argument for less testing (or shorter tests) since you can assess multiple levels of learning and application with the new assessments? And how would fewer questions affect the validity of the assessment?

  • LoriNazareno

    Weighing, feeding, then what?

    Julie – thanks for the run-down on the number and types of tests that your son will take this year. I appreciate the list of assessments and their intended purpose(s) as a way to better understand the issue.

    This opens an interesting conversation about standards, instruction, and assessments. The question is how much time should be spent weighing, feeding, and then what to do with that information?

    What frequently occurs when the question of assessment comes up is some think that questioning one part of standards implementation, in this case the assessment aspect, they frequently assume that you are anti-standards, anti-assessment, and anti-accountability. And, I have found that this is not the case.

    I believe that there is a place, and for those committed to supporting our students, a responsiblity to have a more nuanced conversation about ALL aspects of standards implementation. And there needs to be a distinction between standards, instruction, and assessment. While the three are related to each other, they are different things.

    I have, and continue to be, a supporter of the new standards. I ahve seen significant shifts in instruction that definitely better serve ALL kids. I have had the opportunity to watch masterful teachers working with kids in ways I have never seen before the CCSS were around. Instruction has shifted and it is a good thing.

    AND I believe that we can get much better about how we assess progress toward those standards. What has happened in my experience though is that new assessments have been layered on top of old assessments and there does not seem to be a coherent and aligned system of assessments to get the information needed. I agree with the comment above about how the WAY that assessment results are being used is not aligned with what the assessments were designed for. So:

    • How do we ensure that we provide enough time to teach to rigorous standards AND be efficient with how we assess progress towards those standards?
    • How do we ensure that the assessments actually measure what they are supposed to measure and that the information gets to teachers in time to do something about what it says?
    • How do we create a coherent and aligned system of assessment that allows for the greatest amount of instructional time?
    • How do we use the information gathered from assessments  in a way that supports student learning?

    These are all important questions to answer and worthy of honest and critical conversations. 

    • JulieHiltz



      Your response makes me think about two issues: testing overlap during the transition and the value of teacher assessment. As Florida made the shift from old standards to new, we were still testing on the Sunshine State Standards. So, teachers were trying to cover both sets of standards (and by that I mean ways of thinking and applying knowledge) at the same time. There was a lot of overlap testing: basic reading comprehension versus the in-depth analysis and production of information acquired in reading as required by the new standards. It can be argued that one is just an extension of the other. True. But the testing reflected measurement of both types of comprehension. We needed to know how our kids would likely do on FCAT to adjust our instruction. Not all the time, but those types of dual assessments continue as teachers make the shift to the application piece of the standards.

      The other concern is the value of teacher assessements. Most veteran teachers I talk to can tell you how they think their students will preform at the end of the year. They’ve worked with them in guided reading groups, intervention groups, class instruction. Given enough time, I believe effective teachers would be able to adjust instruction based on their class’s individual needs. Time is always an issue when we have so many things our students want and need to learn each year.


  • JessicaCuthbertson

    Assessing Assessment


    Thanks for sharing two powerful and personal stories — yours and your son’s — as a way to open a dialogue where we can assess the state of assessment. 

    I know as 21st century educators we share common goals around relevant learning experiences for students and understand that measuring our progress towards those goals is an important part of the larger system. We do not shy away from accountability and want all students to be held to equitably high standards and for all students to have effective educators in order to increase their success and options in the postsecondary world.

    We also know as educators that assessment is an important part of our daily practice — we’ve always assessed long, before the imposed current high stakes tests that are a part of our national education landscape and have been since NCLB and in some places prior to NCLB. We constantly gather and collect data in real-time and make decisions on this data — whether it’s listening in on a partner conversation about an idea or text, providing feedback on a piece of writing, asking students to explain their method of problem solving, showing them different ways to approach an artistic task and monitoring their approach, and the list goes on…

    I think your post is important for several reasons: we all carry memories of how our K-12 schooling experiences served (or hindered) our progress. These vary depending on the type of school(s) we attended, the state(s) where we lived and the teachers we had. To challenge Elizabeth’s comment that labels your post “biased” our memories are just that — ours. Experiences stand out (or fade away) depending on their personal impact on us, and in this post you shared your truth and experiences along with the experiences of your fourth grade son. 

    There is a political agenda on most things related to K-12 education and I fear these agendas will continue to persist until those leading and working in the field of education (students, teachers, school leaders, etc.) are the ones entrusted to make the decisions that impact the larger system. By sharing your experiences and the supportive chart that outlines the purpose and number of assessments your son has/will take this school year challenges all of us in the edu-sphere to engage in conversations about the purpose, intended and actual use, and outcome of assessments. And looking critically at something that is so much a systemic and unavoidable part of the broader fabric of today’s world of teaching and learning is not only a necessary and responsible thing to do — it is the only way we will learn from the successes and failures of our system. Your post, in tandem with Lori’s questions above, are a wonderful and important place to start. 

    I think it is time to assess assessments as throroughly and critically as we assess individual students and their teachers. 

    • JulieHiltz

      Dual or triple accountability

      One of the things I’ve realized as I begin to think about this issue is the dual or triple accountability built within the system. Teacher, school and district rating are all dependant on student outcomes. All three groups have “skin in the game” and want the best possible outcome. Teachers, schools and districts monitor the data constantly- but effectively only the teacher can have a direct impact on the outcome. If I don’t teach my kids effectively, I can be fired- and I should be. If we can get to the point where we trust teachers to manage the learning we can begin to talk about removing some of the duplicate accountability. Districts and schools need to recruit and retain effective teachers and put them in the best possible situation to be successful- then trust them to do their job.