It’s Not the Test – 4 things teachers actually hate about testing

One of my good friends, a recently retired teacher, and I were having coffee a couple weeks ago. As we caught up on the recent happenings in each others lives he told me about his experience in helping administer standardized testing to kindergartners. He described the kids’ frustration as students who were unfamiliar with using computers, and couldn’t read, attempted the test. He mentioned that students didn’t understand what questions wanted and described a test that frequently wasn’t testing the skills it was intended to test. All this would’ve been maddening enough on it’s own, but then he told me that a couple students were so upset they were in tears.

Five year olds. In tears. In school. Over a test.

A great deal has been written about the amount of testing in American schools and why it’s so problematic. Over the last decade I’m certain people have said, “we are at a breaking point with testing”. I’m going to avoid saying that mainly because I don’t know that we are. I do know that almost every teacher I talk to is frustrated by the amount of testing we put out students through. I know that many administrators I know are also frustrated by the amount of testing. Most parents I talk to, you guessed it, are also frustrated by the amount of testing.

In fact, its difficult for me to find a person that thinks it’s all a great. Even I were to find this person, it seems the results of emphasis on high stakes testing is all for not. Despite this, we continue to test our kids more. In my school we are now testing our ninth and tenth graders four times a year in at least three subjects. We test our eleventh graders twice a year, the second time is the main state assessment. I know that there are other schools and districts that test more than ours and have more focus on test prep. Much discussion revolves around how we can improve those test scores.

I want to avoid simply arguing that enough is enough. There’s plenty of people that have argued that. If we are honest with each other some tests are helpful in showing major trends and illuminating achievement gaps between race, socioeconomic status, and gender. I want to explore what we really hate about testing, and maybe pose a couple ideas for solutions.

It’s not the test, it’s how you use it

When I was in school, oh so many years ago (I graduated high school in 2007), we basically took a test every couple of years, called the MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program). It didn’t seem particularly intrusive, it was given infrequently, and I don’t recall any teachers “prepping” us for it. Now, I was a young kid and I’m sure they probably did to some extent, but it was unobtrusive enough that I didn’t notice it.

I’m not aware of how the scores from those tests were used, but I’ve witnessed an evolution in the last decade that’s seen data from tests become a major part of teacher evaluations. The accountability movement puts pressure on teachers to explicitly teach to a test. These tests, generally assessing lower thinking skills, frustrate teachers because they spend getting students “ready”, they get stressed from the pressure, they get evaluated based on the scores, and the cycle continues.

Oh yeah, and sometimes they quit .

Standardized tests provide a brief glimpse into a child’s understanding of a content area. You can only extrapolate that data so far. Take Pernille Rip’s experience with the STAR reading test and you’ll see the problem with making decisions, both financial and pedagogical, based on standardized tests (you may notice that test is not one the public frequently thinks of when discussing test scores).

It’s not the test, it’s how intrusive they are

There are obviously ways to limit the intrusiveness of tests. But the more frequently they occur the harder it is to make them not disrupt learning. For instance, we have adopted the NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association) test which occurs three times a year in reading, math, and science.

These tests are computer based so during the testing window it’s difficult to find time in the computer labs. If you teach a class of all freshman in math, for instance, then you take your whole class to test on one day. In theory this works great, but there are many freshman that aren’t in the typical math class most freshman are in (algebra I). This means that students are pulled from other, non freshman, classes. I’ve thankfully only seen the bookkeeping on tracking these students from the outside, but the word “nightmarish” comes to mind.

We spend time reading emails with instructions for administration of them. We discuss them at staff meetings, department meetings, and lunch. We spend time explaining the tests to students. We change up lesson plans to account for the lost day.

This goes on for a couple of weeks and then there has to be a week for make up tests for students that missed the first round. This doesn’t take into account the amount of time administrators put into this process. Even when they run smoothly, they undoubtably create an intrusion into the learning environment.

It’s not the test, it’s that teachers aren’t trusted

The reason many support these tests is so that we can ensure students make “adequate yearly progress” as gaged by said assessments. It’s so that we can tie teacher evaluations to the scores. This all stems from the overall lack of trust of educators. The increaseed emphasis on tests sends a strong message to teachers that they aren’t trusted, and this contributes significantly to their frustration.

It’s not the test, it’s the fallacy that comes with test prep

Test prep is silly. It’s silly for so many reasons, but the one that comes to mind first is that if students can understand concepts deeply than they should be able to answer lower level questions on standardized tests. James Paul Gee’s makes this very argument in his book The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning. I recommend watching the video below that summarizes the chapter on this idea.

To this end we shouldn’t prepping students for tests. We should be helping our students reach a maximum level of understanding and they will in turn be able to do better on standardized tests. I’m not saying doing a practice SAT or Act test should be avoided, but we need to be careful to not devote countless hours of instructional time to it.

Okay, it’s kind of the test…

Maybe my title was off the mark a bit. There are certainly aspects of the tests themselves that are problematic. If you’ve made it this far in the post then you already know the kindergarten example that I cited earlier. But beyond that many students put an incredible amount of pressure on themselves to perform well on them. They are some times written poorly and are not at correct reading levels for every student.

Also, as Kathleen Rhoades & George Madaus from Boston College point out in their study Errors in Standardized Tests: a Systemic problem “Like any measurement tool that produces a number – whether a simple blood pressure reading or complex laboratory test – tests contain error.” Although this is from 2003, the types of errors and problems they describe persist today.

Last, standardized test, when highly emphasized, limit the teacher’s freedom to teach and emphasize what they deem important. Obviously this has pros and cons, but much of it comes back to the lack of trust mentioned above. The vast majority of teachers are working incessantly to provide the best education for their students. They have an incredibly difficult job and should have freedom to be creative and innovative. In the current testing culture, many do not feel they have that freedom.

Sir Ken Robinson sums this up better than I could. (Check out his TED talk if you never have, it’s the most view TED talk of all time.

“Education can be stifling, no question about it. One of the reasons is that education — and American education in particular, because of the standardization — is the opposite of three principles I have outlined: it does not emphasize diversity or individuality; it’s not about awakening the student, it’s about compliance; and it has a very linear view of life, which is simply not the case with life at all.” – Interview with Etsy Blog

What to do…

This extensive national poll done by Phi Delta Kappa international and Gallup provides a light into how different parts of the public view standardized tests. You’ll notice, as seen in the images below, that the majority of respondents don’t think standardized tests are helpful (54%) and the percentage is even higher when public school parents are asked the same question (68%). You’ll note high support for certain tests, like college entrance exams and AP tests. These aren’t generally the tests that most educators take issue with.

Screenshot 2016-05-30 15.46.34

Screenshot 2016-05-30 15.46.13

People can do a few things to help reverse the trend. Simply getting informed about the tests that are being used to make decisions in your local school district is a great step forward. The major state assessments get the press but the vast majority of schools give more than just those. Ask a teacher how standardized tests impact their teaching. Phone your local representatives, talk to your school board members, spread the message on social media, and take a long hard look at opting your student out of them. Get on whatever soapbox you can find and shout about everything negative that comes with administering a standardized test.

Cycles in Education

I frequently hear experienced teachers talk about cycles in education. In five years of teaching I’ve only seen testing become more ingrained. Once schools start relying on the data from these assessments for more and more of their decisions it’s unclear how they could reduce the amount of testing. If there’s one thing you take away from this piece it should be that as tests are used for more and more decisions and more and more data is accumulated, it will only breed more testing and test preparation. This is the scariest part of the testing culture, the more ingrained it becomes the more it is likely to stay.

And I want to be clear. I’m not against all standardized tests. I’ve linked to a couple of articles above that highlight the positive side of giving a large, diverse, group of students the same assessment and analyzing the results. But for all the reasons I’ve laid out, this has gone too far.

The parties that benefit the most from this indoctrination of testing are clear. Companies that write the tests and those concerned with teacher accountability (because a standardized test can nail down everything you do in a classroom to a data point).

What could be better for a company that makes tests than having every school in the country absolutely dependent on your product for the foreseeable future?

Once vital decisions about a school are made based on this data, how do you remove them?

I posed these questions to my friend. He has decades of experience in education and echoed my concerns. We arrived at the possibility that this may not be the typical cycle. Some sort of uprising or populace rebuke of over-testing and testing dependence in our schools may be necessary.

It certainly seems that without the people standing up for what’s right there will be little change.

We need an uprising. We need citizens to get informed about the benefits (or there lack of) of testing, the negative consequences, and the primary beneficiaries. We need citizens to see that the decisions of the powerful in education have serious impacts on their kids and their teachers. We need a movement. We need people to get angry, because they should be. We need students to stand up like they’ve done in Boston and Detroit. We need to teachers to get on their soapboxes about the reality in their classrooms. The longer we passively let testing permeate our schools the harder it’s going to be to undo.

I almost forgot to mention how many of the skills we want our students to graduate with cannot be standardized. Watch Mike Kaechele spit hot fire in his MACUL lighting talk entitled, “Standardize that”.

Please share this widely with people that may not realize all the repercussions testing has on kids. The press never explains how testing permeates our professions in the ways I’ve outlined above. I also have a post coming soon on how the future generation needs to be better at developing questions than finding answers. I’ll link it here once it’s up

Further reading

“Nah, you could do something great” – A commentary on how the teaching profession is not respected by a growing portion of society.

American teachers, more demoralized than ever, are quitting in droves by Steven C. Ward from Quartz

The case Against Standardized Testing by Quinn Mulholland from the Harvard Political Review.

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