We do love to hate on testing – and there are good reasons for that. But testing is not a black-and-white issue, all “good” or all “bad.” You might be looking at it that way, but by the end of this article you will have a more nuanced view.
How we end up over-testing
First, let me make something clear: Testing is way overdone in many, many districts across America. Here’s the process:
1. End-of-year, high stakes test scores remain stubbornly low.
2. Leaders (state and district) come under pressure to raise them.
3. Leaders try “motivating the troops” with programs and presentations and all manner of marketing to convince everyone (teachers and students alike) to try harder.
4. End-of-year test scores remain stubbornly low.
5. Leaders then decide that the only way to raise end-of-year scores is to gather data all during the year to show which students/teachers/schools are off track in order to somehow convince them to (once again) try harder.
6. Leaders implement dozens of “how are we doing now” tests throughout the year that are in addition to the final test.
7. End-of-year test scores remain stubbornly low.
8. The cycle repeats, with more intensity each time.
This is a mindless escalation of test preparation that is driven by institutional fear. Kids don’t get better at testing simply by testing them more. Duh! So why is it happening in districts across America?
The nuclear option
What is the reason behind the intensity of testing? I’ve often pondered this. I mentioned the question to my husband, who remarked that it was similar to the problem with our military nuclear launch units.
A few years ago, there was a cheating scandal involving the missile operators who took a monthly certification test. The problem was that the test had become “high stakes” (sound familiar?). It was career-ending if they didn’t pass at nearly 100% every single month. It was way too much pressure.
But why the testing pressure? Well, because they couldn’t assess the one thing that these people were actually training to do: conduct a nuclear war. (Whew!) Organizations being what they are, they had to assess something, so the test became the most critical thing.
What is a school system’s most critical goal? Producing productive, employed citizens who have a good shot at living successful lives. And that goal – our ultimate desired outcome – cannot be measured…like nuclear war.
Schools, like all organizations, must measure SOMETHING. Thus: testing
Note: never ask my husband a question unless you want to get an unexpected, detailed, often uncomfortable but always thought provoking answer!
Benchmarks have a place
It’s crazy, and it’s very hard on students and teachers. So – for the record – I’m NOT a fan of over-testing our children. But…
- Should students be tested on spelling words by actually writing those words down correctly? Yes.
- Should students take tests at the end of units to assess mastery of standards and whether re-teaching needs to occur? Absolutely.
- Should there be a reasonable number of benchmark tests to identify progress throughout the year before it’s too late to steer the ship in a new direction? Of course.
Most teacher will likely agree with the points above. But “how many” is a contentious issue that is often decided in the “too much” direction.
Now – also for the record – I am a fan of a year-end test, no matter how “high stakes” it may be for either students or teachers. You’ll figure out the details of why I like it if you read my test preparation book, but it can be summed up in one statement:
There is no other objective way to efficiently determine if kids have mastered content.
Testing in perspective
Written tests have been part of the modern human experience for centuries – even eons in some parts of the world like China. There’s a reason for that (see objective, efficient above) and apparently the best minds on the planet have not been able to figure out a better way to assess proficiency.
Which is why our kids can expect to be taking tests for the rest of their lives:
- Drivers licensing tests
- College exams
- Military specialty tests
- Professional certification exams
…and on and on. Testing is just how knowledge is measured and to argue against it is not only futile, but also counterproductive for our students who must learn to be comfortable with how to take them.
By the way, my fellow National Board certified teachers, you do recall taking a written test, don’t you?
I’m a strong proponent of the notion that elementary teachers bear great responsibility for the pass rate in high school, and there will be more than a few tests standing between them and graduation once they leave our classrooms.
Overall, this process is not as much about students getting correct answers on tests as it is being well prepared for life.