Let’s be honest about annual testing

Testing pencils

Let’s be honest: students and parents obtain no tangible benefit from large-scale annual testing. Kids and families give up numerous days of learning time – both for the tests themselves and for the test prep sessions whose sole purpose is to get ready for the tests (and maybe also for the testing pep rally) – and for what? The data come back too late to be actionable. The questions are shrouded in secrecy so that no one has any idea what students actually missed. As Diane Ravitch has noted, given the immense amounts of time, energy, money, and personnel that we expend on our summative assessments, “there’s no instructional gain … [there’s] no diagnostic value.” The tests fail the fundamental rule of good assessment – which is to provide feedback to fuel future improvement – and come at a tremendous opportunity cost.

All of this might be fine – students and families might dutifully and kindly take a few hours or even days out of the school year to support their local school’s desire to get some institutional-level benchmarks (like when I was a kid) – if the stakes currently weren’t so high and the problems weren’t so prevalent (unlike when I was a kid). The use of extremely-volatile, statistically-unreliable data to punish teachers and schools… the misuse of assessment results to fuel anti-public-school political agendas… the billions of public dollars that go into the pockets of testing companies instead of under-resourced classrooms… the narrowing of curricula and the neglect of non-tested subjects… the appropriation of computers for weeks on end for testing instead of learning… the recharacterization of schools as test score factories, not life success enablers… no wonder parents are starting to scream. It’s a miracle that more families aren’t opting out of these tests and it’s awfully hard to blame them if they do.

Our assessment systems are a complete mess right now. As parents experience empty-threat tantrums from policymakers, vindictive ‘sit and stare’ policies from school districts, and testing horror story after horror story, they are rightfully pushing back against testing schemes that offer no learning feedback or other concrete benefits to their children. There are looming battles with governors and the federal government around opt-out policies. Put your money on the parents.

Many educators are still running scared on this front. Most schools are still fearful and compliant. Our inactivity makes us complicit. When do we say ‘enough is enough?’ How bad does it have to get before we stand with our parents and our communities? When do we fight for what’s educationally sound instead of caving in (yet again)?

Image credit: perfect, romana klee

10 Responses to “Let’s be honest about annual testing”

  1. Great post. Thanks.

    Even if we stand with the parents though, what solution do we call for? Do you advocate the complete elimination of state tests? Should we simply reduce the load?

    I find, in my classroom at least, that telling students that the tests don’t matter, that they aren’t anything to worry about, helps them tremendously. The stress we place on students is the real enemy.

  2. Brad,
    I agree. Having a viable option is important to the discussion. If we don’t have a viable option to discuss, then we teachers come off as whining about the fact the tests are useless instead of productive.
    I tell my learners the same thing during this round of testing, but next year the 4 days of wasted time does matter for graduation. And then what do we do? Of course, given how the learners whipped through the tests today, I think the cut score will be about 10%. That should help.

    • Lots of alternatives to consider…

      1. Configure assessments so they’re feedback, not punishment
      2. Make data more timely and thus actionable
      3. Stop tying stupid teacher- or union-busting tactics to student test results
      4. Survey sampling, not every kid in every grade every year
      5. Make them shorter (no reason for them to be longer than bar exams!)
      6. True performance assessments, not just low-level recall and regurgitation

      And so on… This is by no means a comprehensive list.

  3. Mike Arsenault Reply May 4, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    If we’re being honest about testing let’s go back to why we test our students. The testing provides a measuring stick for school districts. Our culture wants schools to be accountable for their performance.

    I’d love to get rid of this testing and have the time devoted to instruction but I do not see that happening any time soon (despite parental concerns). Educators have complained about the tests we’ve been administering for years. These new tests are hard but they are now starting to test the skills we’ve been pushing for.

    I don’t think that I’m simply being compliant, but realistic. Testing is not going to go away. The tests we are giving in Maine are not perfect. It is a lot better than what we’ve done in the past. The skills it is looking for are much more rigorous than our old test and adaptive to each student. I’m doing what I can do to make the testing experience as smooth as possible for my students and staff.

    We’ve been giving standardized tests to students for years. Why is it that now that it’s computerized we’re fighting it?

  4. In the 1800s, British schools started paying teachers based on the number of inches their students had written. It was supposed to be an objective measure, make teachers accountable. But of course what happened was that learning stopped as teachers had students copy out the bible by hand, and classrooms were reduced to sweatshops for handwriting. Eventually school inspectors realized that this objective measure was completely stupid and counter productive and it was dropped. But um, doesn’t seem like we have learned our lesson at all…

  5. Testing is absolutely unrelated to student learning and clearly has a negative affect on contact time with the teacher. Like previously mentioned, I believe we need to be accountable, and finding a better way is the key. If we used another measure that had some level of portable to students, at least they would be credible results. How about tying to scholarships and employment applications? Also, shouldn’t these reflect the growth experienced instead of the static ability of a student?

    • YES, testing is unrelated to student learning. YES, we need to find a better way to measure accountability. YES, they should most definitely reflect the growth of students. HOWEVER, if we tie these scores to scholarships and employment application then we are punishing our special needs population as well as anyone who doesn’t test well.

  6. I wholeheartedly disagree. These tests are important. If not for the students in that moment to direct their instruction and learning, these tests are an important indicator of how we’re serving the students that are most often left behind. Low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities – these are students who are, as a whole, unmistakably underserved in our communities. These tests offer school leaders and policy makers insight into where we need to spend more resources and improve teaching. One week of testing is a small price to pay when we’re able to lift up entire cohorts of children and transform education for those groups who are routinely forgotten.

    • Mary, two thoughts on this:

      1. My initial point was that there is very little tangible benefit, if any, to the students and families themselves. They lose learning time and get little, if anything, in return (for all of the reasons that I articulate above).

      2. Second, I’m with you in theory. If we saw reinvestments in schools and communities based on sound, defensible, meaningful assessment results – and if all of the abuses and perversions of our assessment systems that currently are in place could be minimized or discontinued – then we might consider the time, energy, and resources well spent. But given how these summative assessments are actually playing out in practice and in political spheres, I am less sanguine about achieving the results that you articulate. Wishing that this was occurring does not make it so in practice. We have ways of minimizing the harms that are concurrent with today’s state-level assessment schemes and getting better, more useful data into the hands of educators and families. We just have chosen not to employ them.

      If you have examples of school systems and policymakers that are employing intelligent resource allocations that are helpful to students and educators based on state-level summative assessment results, please share them. We would love to know more about these transformative systems that are using summative assessments to ‘lift up entire cohorts of children.’

      • i think honestly test are great way to see if your student has fully learned all he or she needs but i think they need to be shorter and in stead of complicated problems it should be easier but there are a lot of other aspects I am sure but a little easier tests probable wouldn’t be any harm

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