Jemar Tisby

A Few Thoughts on Standardized Testing During Testing Season

From February through May you’ll find a common emphasis across the nation’s public schools. For weeks or months at a time schools prepare their students in what has become a hallmark of modern education–the standardized test.

I have the privilege of serving some of our country’s finest burgeoning minds as the interim principal of Midtown Public Charter School. This is my second tour of duty as a principal, and I’m starting to solidify some of my opinions about education. Over time I have beocme increasingly dissatisfied with the way we assess our students in public schools.

Our school is focused on implementing 21st century learning. The contemporary vocational landscape has shifted from trade and manufacturing jobs to service and information. Today’s careers are less about widgets and more about the web. In order to prepare students for the modern workplace they have to learn in ways that mimic that workplace.

Twenty-first century learning means having one’s own e-mail address in primary or middle grades. It means working in collaboration with peers instead of being isolated at a desk. Learning today must include project-based instruction that requires students to implement a series of steps to come up with a final product. Contemporary education has to engage with the local community, issues that face the nation, and factors in globalization. Education has to constantly evolve with the world. Standardized tests, or rather, too much focus on them, may be holding us back from richer learning experiences and the joy that comes with them.

Standardized tests have been around for decades. Most of us can remember taking them in grade school, we just don’t remember them being such a big deal. It wasn’t until the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001 that standardized tests became such a massive part of public education. NCLB mandated that states test students in select grades in math and reading. Certain benefits were attached to high test scores and consequences came when districts and schools failed to make the grade.

The emphasis on standardized testing has led to over-testing. An October 2015 study of 66 large, urban school districts in the United States summarized what many have suspected. Students took an average of 112.3 standardized tests between pre-K and 12th grade. This number does not include school developed tests or teacher-designed tests. Eighth-graders, the most heavily tested grade, spend 25.3 hours per year on standardized tests. This is separate from the test preparation lessons they receive beforehand.

What does all this testing do? Researchers found no correlation between the volume of standardized tests given and performance on the National Assessment for Educational Progress in reading and math in 4th and 8th grade. Further, almost 40 percent of districts surveyed had to wait between two and four months for the test results. This means schools couldn’t even use the data during the crucial summer months meant for planning for the upcoming school year.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by President Barack Obama in December 2015, replaced NCLB and may reduce some of the emphasis placed on standardized testing. In a statement from President Obama he said, “in moderation, smart, strategic tests can help us measure our kids’ progress in school, and it can help them learn…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.”

But even reducing the focus on standardized testing isn’t the solution. Accountability is good and standardized tests are part of that. But they are just a part. To improve accountability in local schools and districts, constituents should be looking at a variety of data points.

Instead of simply looking at how many students pass or fail a standardized test, we should also be looking at growth. A student who starts out at the 25th percentile and ends up at the 50th may still fail the test but has had a tremendous year in terms of growth. We should examine average daily attendance and how many students are coming back to the same school from one year to the next (retention). We need to look at how many teachers are staying, too. A school that hemorrhages teachers may be weeding out the ineffective ones or driving off the best ones. It’s worth investigating. Parental satisfaction is another way of determining how well a school is serving students and families.

The question is not whether to have standardized testing or not. Keep the tests, but reduce the emphasis and consider a variety of indicators when evaluating the health of a school. We’ll end up with more motivated teachers and students who are prepared for a 21st century working world.