Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How Schools Are Over-Testing Students

New study of big city schools, including Milwaukee, shows way too many standardized tests being given.

By - Oct 29th, 2015 11:45 am
Cass Street School. Photo by Carl Baehr.

Cass Street School. Photo by Carl Baehr.

Yesterday the national media jumped all over the news that test scores of America’s students dropped in mathematics for the first time since 1990, while reading scores were stagnant. Meanwhile the press mostly ignored a recent study that might help explain low achievement by students: because they spend an increasing amount of time doing standardized tests rather than on classroom instruction.

The study was by the Council of Great City Schools, which looked at 66 big city school districts that are members, including Milwaukee Public Schools. It found the number of standardized tests students take has exploded in the past decade, with most schools requiring too many tests of dubious value.

The study’s findings:

-401 different tests were given by these 66 schools last year and their students sat for tests 6,570 times;

-The average student takes 112 tests between pre-K and grade 12;

-The average eighth grader last year spent 4.22 days or 2.34 percent of school time taking standardized tests;

-There is no correlation between the amount of mandated testing time and achievement by students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

As bad as that sounds, it actually undercounts the total time spent on standardized testing, because the study didn’t measure hours spent in classrooms preparing for some of these tests. Then add in quizzes and tests prepared by teachers to test students, and you can imagine how tedious class can become.

Kim Schroeder, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, says he is not surprised by the report’s findings. “We’ve seen testing increase at all levels, all the way from kindergarten to high school.”

“Everyone is culpable here,” Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, was quoted in a Washington Post story on the study. “You’ve got multiple actors requiring, urging and encouraging a variety of tests for very different reasons that don’t necessarily add up to a clear picture of how our kids are doing. The result is an assessment system that’s not very intelligent and not coherent.”

A key factor that’s increased testing is the federal No Child Left Behind law passed with huge bipartisan support under President George W. Bush. According to Thomas McCarthy, spokesperson for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Wisconsin is required to give standardized test to students in third through 11th grade — nine straight years — by the No Child Left Behind law.

The federal Race To The Top program created under President Barack Obama has added more testing, as the study noted. In reaction to its findings, Obama pledged to take steps to reduce testing. In “moderation, smart, strategic tests can help us measure our kids’ progress in school,” he said. “But I also hear from parents who, rightly, worry about too much testing, and from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning, both for them and for the students. I want to fix that.”

The increase in testing, as the Post story noted, has created “a chock-a-block jumble, where tests have been layered upon tests under mandates from Congress, the U.S. Department of Education and state and local governments, many of which the study argues have questionable value to teachers and students.”

The study found that school districts may use standardized tests to measure things they weren’t designed for, and tests that are not well aligned to each other or with college- or career-ready standards. Four in 10 districts reported having to wait between two months and four months before getting state test results. The lag time means teachers begin a new school year not knowing where a student needs to improve on these tests.

Schroeder says the growing standardized testing load and the time it takes away from classroom instruction is “a constant discussion” among MPS teachers. “Teachers go into teaching to inspire students, to help them become creative thinkers, not to help them fill in a bubble on a score sheet,” he adds.

As many tests as Wisconsin and MPS now use, it can be even worse in other districts. The study found Milwaukee did less testing than some districts and does not do what are called “end-of-course” and “formative” assessments.

Tony Tagliavia, spokesperson for MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver, notes the system has recently reduced the amount of time devoted to standardized tests, primarily by using assessments that serve multiple purposes. “As one example, our new ‘universal screener’ assessment takes an average of 15-20 minutes per test compared to 45-90 minutes for the prior test.”

Tagliavia says standardized tests given by MPS are mandated by the state and federal government while McCarthy blames the problem on the federal government. Federal officials would no doubt argue that they passed education programs and rules because state and local leaders were not doing a good enough job of improving education, particularly for low-income and minority children in big city schools.

That’s what’s most alarming about this report: it studied precisely those students who most need to improve achievement and are least likely to do so if burdened by countless standardized tests. The constant testing tells these young people that education is drudgery and all about repetitive testing rather than the magic of curiosity and where it can lead, the thrill of learning who they are and how the world works. Standardized tests can only measure a small part of what students know, and multiplying the number of tests still leaves you far short of measuring the whole student. Yet we are fatally attracted to these tests, because they promise simple solutions to a complex problem.

Categories: Education, Murphy's Law

20 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: How Schools Are Over-Testing Students”

  1. James Lowder says:

    Administrators are quick to pass off standardized tests as mandated by the state or federal government, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that some are required, but not nearly as many as school officials claim.

    The time lag schools face for receiving results is notable, but so is the lag between test results and impact on curriculum. On a day-to-day basis, teachers no longer have time or freedom to deviate from curriculum handed to them from administrators or outside companies, so they can only deliver differentiated instruction in a haphazard fashion. And with some tests, administrators will admit there’s a lag of three or more years between receiving test results and those results having any impact on curriculum. By that time, the students who were tested have often moved on from the school, let alone the grade, and many administrators have found other jobs, as well. Cue the call from the new administrators for new data and different or revised tests.

    Finally, it’s very difficult for parents or just interested taxpayers to find out how much districts are now spending on these tests and other forms of prepackaged curriculum, or the terms of the agreements. The tests themselves are frequently considered confidential, so teachers and students are not given the ability to review specific questions and answers.

  2. Kurt says:

    “The constant testing tells these young people that education is drudgery and all about repetitive testing rather than the magic of curiosity and where it can lead”

    I have pretty good faith that if the latter were largely exhibited, the former would not have developed in to what it is.

    I agree there is too much testing. The amount of testing inherently devalues any one test…. students just don’t care about them. But we do need good and long term test data to see what works and what does not work in education.

  3. Marie says:

    Educational testing has become a big business. The more often they test the more they earn.

    Education expert Diane Ravitch has said that overemphasis on testing has is often counterproductive. And defunding programs that help to engage the whole person–like the arts and even physical education or what they used to call “shop” courses–cut off ways to engage students in other forms of learning. We need to recognize that it “takes a village” to improve educational outcomes–and it takes more help for some students to learn.

  4. Kevin Baas says:

    I guess I’m a bit of an aberration, because testing was the only part of school I enjoyed.

    Homework in every subject except math bored me to death and I didn’t do it. The test was where I could prove I knew the stuff and didn’t need the stupid homework.

    But despite my efforts, the homework kept coming. And there were no AP classes in high school. I was stuck with the the rest of the class, having to sit through lectures designed for the lowest common denominator. “Yes, I know how to use a comma… I know what blood vessels are, you don’t have to explain it 5 times… etc.”

    What schools need is a way for students with varying abilities to be able to get taught to their challenge level. A child should be place in each individual subject matter according to their ability, not their age. The way things work now the entire classroom – and this means ultimately the entire country – is taught at the same rate as the worst-performing student in the class can be taught, irrespective of their ability to absorb information. That demolishes curiosity, and is an utter waste of time.

  5. Eddie says:

    What schools and administrators all fail to realize is that the kids taking these tests could care less. They are in school to learn and not to waste time taking standardized tests. What motivates a kid to do well on these tests – nothing. Why not mark “A” “B” “C” or “D” straight down the page which takes all of 2 minutes and then sleep for the rest of the time until time is called. Or how abou purposely answering a test looking for the wrong answer – as I know one student who scored a 36 on the ACT and is a Harvard did one year on the WKCE tests.
    It’s abut time that everyone realizes what a complete waste these tests are.

  6. Kevin Baas says:

    Testing is useful for at least three things:

    * assessing students abilities
    * assessing curriculum weaknesses
    * improving students recall and analysis by providing mental exercise.

  7. James Lowder says:

    Standardized tests–the kind of testing being discussed here–are absolutely miserable at improving student analysis of content or measuring their ability to synthesize material and state their opinions about it in meaningful ways.

  8. SteveM says:

    Oh, Kevin. Your ideal world sure would be expensive. Customized learning with a teacher ready to assist every student. Oh, wait, the current administration only wants to eliminate staff and costs. Maybe those parochial schools can afford more testing. Oh, wait…….

  9. Kevin Baas says:

    You make a bold claim there, James. Do you have any evidence to support it? The reading comprehension parts do a pretty good job at measuring a students ability to analyze content and synthesize materials. So there’s a counter-example to your claim, and since your claim was a strong claim (strong claim meaning a claim of none or all as opposed to some), a single counter-example is sufficient to disprove it.

    On the point of “state their opinion”, most subject matters are not a matter of opinion, but of fact and/or reasoning ability. Talking about opinions on evolution or 2+2 only serves to diminish a students ability to truly grasp the subject, and handicaps their thinking ability for life. But if by “opinion” your referring to something like a creative essay, well then yes, a lot of standardized tests don’t have creative essay sections or something like that (though some do). Though that’s generally higher level stuff for college courses to test deep comprehension of complex subject matters, and the lack of it on a test does not diminish the value of the other things tested, such as their ability to do various different maths, or the aforementioned reading comprehension, both very important life skills.

  10. Jay Bullock says:

    Driver can say what she will about testing at MPS, but it is not significantly better this year. Indeed, I lost two days of instruction in my AP class this month because all juniors in the district (registered for and then) took the PSAT. Even though we are in the ACT-heavy midwest and even though the PSAT doesn’t actually count for college admission and even though MPS hasn’t exactly had a multitude of National Merit Scholars in recent years and even though the state absolutely doesn’t require it of us, we paid for and sacrificed class time for every junior in the city to take this test.

    I shudder to think what we will be asked to do with the data when it comes back.

  11. James Lowder says:

    I’ve taught writing and lit. at the college level and have been a professional writer and editor for decades. Standardized testing is a miserable failure when it comes to measuring students’ ability to write or analyze materials. There’s plenty of studies that support that notion. To begin reading up on studies that identify the various limitations of standardized testing, start here: The same site has long reading lists for various aspects of standardized testing.

    The people grading standardized essays are pulled from places like Craigslist, so you know the testing is top quality, too. You can get a start reading about the test companies’ operations at sites like this:

    Oh, and limiting that kind of higher level thinking to colleges, as you do, is a terrible idea. You note above that homework bored you as a kid, but maybe the problem was you were waiting for college to learn how to think.

  12. Kevin Baas says:

    SteveM, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying you place students according to their demonstrated ability as opposed to their age.

  13. James Lowder says:

    By the by, Kevin. Over-reliance on standardized testing prevents schools from adequately addressing the sort of differentiation you’re calling for. The tests treat all children as if they learn the same way, and treat education as if the most important aspects of intelligence can be boiled down to a fill-in-the-bubble question. Sure, there are some things the tests can highlight. They do have limited uses. The problem is, they are being pedaled as if they are the gold standard for measuring all achievement, intelligence, even teacher performance.

  14. Kevin Baas says:

    James, I never said it should be limited to higher education. I said that it is generally not done to a large degree until higher education. I actually think it should be done earlier than it is. I don’t think we teach higher level thinking skills early enough. I think we teach them too late, leaving many people lacking in them.

    As regards standardized testing measuring creative writing, I really struggle to think how it could test that. Basic english, sure. Essay righting – would be a task by any measure.

    But with regard to analyzing materials (by which i presume you refer to reading comprehension and logical analysis), that is certainly possible to do on a test – in fact, that’s probably the best way to do it. If you think the current tests fall short of what they can achieve, maybe you can offer some ideas to improve it. But that doesn’t speak to whether or not one should have standardized testing, only to the quality of the test in their current form. I, for one, would like to see questions like on the LSAT (legal sat), but unfortunately the innumeracy rate is pretty high in america, so students would probably do quite poorly on it. I suppose at least we’d know then how weak their abilities are in those areas. Might help the impetus to do something about it. (though we’d probably make far more headway on that by just getting republicans out of congress.)

  15. Kurt says:

    One thing that seems to be missing in these conversations about testing is the value of the long term data gathering. Whether these test accurately reflect ALL students capabilities in ALL areas of education or types of thought processes is somewhat irrelevant. What matters is how is this data trending.

    This is similar to the unemployment rate. Yes, it comes with a multitude of caveats, but at the very least it gives you a long term, relatively consistent data point to track over time.

    Frequently changing the types of tests, or the entire philosophy behind those tests eliminates the value long term data trending. Keep standardized testing consistent, keep it minimal.

  16. kar says:

    A story that would be helpful to read: How much money did Wisconsin spend to participate in preparation for this year’s Badger test, which was only used once and has now been scrapped — and is therefore useless in generating longitudinal data? The Walker administration has announced plans to develop a second successor to the the WKCE; how much money will that cost? With such differing student outcomes in high-poverty districts vs. non-high-poverty districts, one has to wonder whether all that money wouldn’t be better spent helping to offset some of the negative effects of poverty on families and their children’s learning.

  17. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    For once Bruce you are 100% right. if you study the best systems in the world they do not bother with all the testing, they teach. Does not take a genius to know when kids can read. Hand them book and ask them to read to you.
    What method do they use in Scandinavia and Singapore? Whatever works.

  18. Kevin Baas says:

    Actually when I was a kid my mom handed me books and asked me to read to her. I refused and refused and refused. I found it really annoying. She thought I couldn’t read. She thought I was learning disabled. It took a formal I.Q. test for her to discover that I already read at an eight grade reading level and that all she was doing was bothering and insulting me.

    So, testing: 1. Handing them a book and asking them to read: -1.

  19. Jeremy says:

    4 days a year for an 8th grader does not seem excessive. He gets off of school for more in-service days than that.

  20. Kevin Baas says:

    … and hold on a minute, WCD: do you think just handing them a book is going to give you a detailed analysis of their reading level? What reading level is the book? How well do they comprehend what they’re reading?

    Handing them a book is going to give you pretty much a yes/no – literate or illiterate. Is that really the standard you want for our kids? ’cause that’s a pretty low frickin’ bar!

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