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Stop the Testing Circus

• ExcelinEd

The real issues with testing don’t fit cleanly into anyone’s agenda. And that’s a problem.

Last week, Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners weighed in on the discussion on standardized testing. Speaking as an education analyst and as a father of students stressed out by testing, Rotherham says it’s time to stop the testing circus.

In his piece “Stop the Testing Circus” published in the U.S. News & World Report, Rotherham explains:

It was like I was living an anti-testing blog post. My daughters were stressed and anxious about the upcoming state test. But here’s the thing: They were first graders at the time, so they didn’t even have to take the test for two more years. We live in a state where the elementary school tests don’t start until third grade and are not consequential for kids anyway (and in practice carry little consequence for the adults, either). So why were my kids freaked out?

It turns out, surprisingly enough, when adults in a school make tests into a big deal – telling kids they really matter, wearing matching shirts for solidarity, holding pep rallies, emphasizing test prep rather than teaching and launching parent-teacher association campaigns to make sure everyone is fortified with enough snacks – the kids pick up on it. A cynic might think it’s a deliberate effort to sour parents on the tests.

Exasperating? Yes. But the schools are to blame as much as any test, test company or public official. When did it become OK for educators to make the tests into such a circus? The idea that this kind of environment is inevitable is belied by all the public schools that don’t treat testing this way.

In general, it seems pretty clear that testing is having a distorting effect on schools – for good and ill. On the upside we’re seeing substantially more attention to underserved populations – especially poor and minority students or those with special needs. That attention is leading to better results for those students. On the other hand, the outsized focus on testing clearly carries some costs to instruction, curricular breadth and student experience.

What’s happening now – and we’re in the middle of testing season – is a collision of a few factors, none of which fit cleanly onto the agenda of the various factions fighting about school testing. Here are three big ones:

Capacity. What elementary schools are asked to do is daunting though not unreasonable. Getting students to a specific degree of literacy and numeracy is challenging but it can be done. Unfortunately, not every school is up to the task and when the tests take on an outsized role, parents ought to ask what’s going on. Is it the test or the school’s ability to effectively teach most students?

Policy leaders involved in No Child Left Behind assumed that by raising the bar states would get more serious to help schools and teachers improve. They were dismissive of concerns raised about the capacity of many schools. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. It’s a mistake that is still playing out. The revisions to No Child Left Behind pending on Capitol Hill do little to course-correct by making sure teachers and schools can accomplish what’s asked of them.

New tests. The new tests developed to assess the Common Core standards are, well, new. That’s causing a lot of understandable anxiety among teachers – especially given the uneven rollout of Common Core and all the political noise about it. Yet these tests, while hardly perfect, are the kind of tests teachers have been asking for since before No Child Left Behind. Surveys indicate that as teachers become more familiar with the new standards and assessments they like them more.

New technology. Today’s tests – Common Core assessments or not – are increasingly given online. This creates bottlenecks around technology in places without enough computers or with inadequate Internet access. Students must also learn how to use computers or tablets to take the tests. This takes time away from instruction and further amps up the testing emphasis even if these are computer skills students need anyway.

What now?

For starters parents should demand that schools ratchet down the focus on tests. No more rallies, no more making the tests the focus of the school week, month or year. And parents shouldn’t tolerate adult stress becoming an issue for their kids. Some policies need fixing, too, but there seems to be little correlation between specific policies and how much of a circus testing becomes in some schools.

Longer term, all of these issues take money to solve. Tests that have a lighter touch and are less intrusive and time consuming than today’s are within reach. With enough public and private investment the big springtime summative test will go the way of the dinosaur. As it should. Tests that take a few minutes as part of the school day and are just another routine activity for students or even a game should take its place.

Finally, more transparency please. Most of the combatants in today’s testing wars haven’t actually seen the tests they’re debating so fiercely (nor have many state policymakers who make key decisions about them). Few parents have either. It costs money to release test items publicly so state policies vary. More released tests may not end the testing wars but parents do deserve to see them.

The other day one of my daughters told me she read a review copy of “Idiot’s Guide’s: The Common Core Standards” she found in my office. “In sixth grade I need to be able to cite evidence from a text to support my analysis of what the text says and explain the plot,” she breezily reported.

There’s more to it than that, but teaching and measuring it shouldn’t be this big of a deal.

(Full disclosure: I’ve looked at this issue in a few capacities as a parent and a professional. I was a state board of education member in Virginia so interacted with assessment companies in that role. In the past few years I’ve consulted for Achievement Network, a nonprofit trying to improve how assessments work and are used in schools, for ACT, and Pearson paid me to give a speech.)

Read Rotherham’s original piece at the U.S. News & World Report.


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