Too Much Testing? Or Not Enough Quality Testing?
As an educator who has spent nearly all of her professional life in urban education, I am deeply concerned about the direction that current (and admittedly much-needed) discussions about over-testing in our public schools has taken.
Rather than focusing our ire on the countless poor-quality, unaligned, often mind-numbing “extra” tests that, along with test preparation, have come to take up so much instructional time, we seem poised to eliminate tests that actually let us see how we are doing across large groups of students. And in the ultimate irony, we seem ready to do so just when educators and students badly need feedback on where they are on our new and much higher standards and just when those in many states are about to get that feedback on what promises to be higher quality assessments than ever before.
Every educator knows that statewide tests don’t tell us everything we need to know about student performance. But my own experiences have convinced me that — contrary to their current portrayals as useless and burdensome for teachers and students — they are an important tool for gauging the progress of students and schools. Think, for a moment, about how school and district leaders use these assessments to identify areas of strength and weakness. Think, too, about the ways in which teacher and administrator teams integrate data from statewide annual assessments into their efforts to assure the progress of every child or to adjust practice to patterns in student performance. And think about how education leaders have used these annual results to push hard conversations (and even harder actions) to ensure we are holding ourselves and each other responsible for educating all groups of kids to high levels.
Yes, I know that many school and district leaders obsess about these tests. Even though research makes it abundantly clear that the best preparation for standards-based tests is good, standards-based instruction, these leaders opt for weeks of drill and routinized test prep — sometimes at the expense of rich, learning opportunities. And believe me, I recognize such patterns are too often found in schools serving students from low-income communities and students of color.
Tests are meant to chart progress toward high academic achievement for all students, not to become the sole focus of classroom time. They provide a much-needed lens for educators to compare their students with others across community borders and zip codes. Further still, teachers get a glimpse of how individual students are performing according to statewide standards of college and career readiness. One teacher noted to me, “I use the student state test data to give me information about how my teaching of key concepts, such as fractions, actually translated for my students compared to students across the state.” This is the same teacher who also developed group math and robotics investigations for young people across her district, not someone fixated on standardized testing.
First-hand accounts like that make me — as both an educator and a parent of three children of color in public schools — especially concerned about current efforts to eliminate one of the most useful tools we have for gauging student and school progress. I find it disconcerting that we would so easily dismiss annual, end-of-year testing as a meaningless exercise. Would we do this knowing that many school and district leaders use these assessments to chart their students’ progress toward standards? That there are schools that successfully integrate state annual assessments for every child as a part of how they adjust practice? That many an educational leader has used these annual results to push hard conversations (and even harder actions) to ensure we are holding ourselves and each other responsible for educating all kids — not just the kids from wealthier zip codes — to high levels?
As a country we do not have a particularly stellar — let alone long-standing — track record of holding ourselves accountable for the achievement of all kids. We also know that there are schools and students for whom testing is only one small moment in an overall engaging learning experience; while for others testing consumes the preponderance of professional conversations and class time. Let’s work harder to rectify the latter so that we can have more examples of schools maintaining a healthy balance of reasonable assessment and high-quality learning experiences. Let’s stop this spiral into broad generalizations that do nothing to address the real issues that underlie the heart of educational equity.