How Schools Are Over-Testing Students
New study of big city schools, including Milwaukee, shows way too many standardized tests being given.
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 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.