Is it Time to Do Away with Standardized Testing?

Recently, while talking with a teacher about the importance of adjusting instruction to meet the needs of children in the classroom, the teacher suddenly burst out laughing. I asked why that was funny. She stopped laughing and became very serious. “It’s funny,” she said, “because adjusting instruction to meet the needs of my students is against what I am allowed to do in my classroom. I have been given a day by day timeline for what I teach, and I am held accountable to that timeline regardless of whether my students have learned the material or not. The mindset around here is that if I cover it, the students will learn it, and if they don’t, oh well, it was covered. Following the timeline to ensure we cover everything that will be tested is the priority, not learning.”

Those words played in my mind for the rest of the day. How could this be? How could we have come to a place in education where conformity has been misconstrued for accountability? There is nothing wrong with some expectancy of conformity in instructional practices, but when it comes to learning, conformity should take a back seat to the needs of the child. When focus in the classroom shifts from learning to coverage of material at the expense of children, something is seriously wrong with our approach to accountability.

Accountability is not bad when it makes learning “purposeful;” however, accountability is bad if it becomes a “check-list” for completed tasks, which in effect makes learning “incidental.” For learning to have meaning and relevance, it must have a focused purpose. However, that has not always been the case in schools. I entered the teaching profession years ago when a teacher was given a key to the building, the book room, and the classroom and sent forth in isolation to teach whatever the teacher deemed important. Often lessons in the classroom were of special interest to the teacher with more focus on what the teacher did in the classroom than what the students learned in the classroom. There was no accountability for learning, and in fact in many cases learning was secondary at best. Of course, this was not the case for every teacher, there were exceptional teachers who raised the bar far above the norm, but the norm was mediocrity at best, and the overall mindset was that was good enough. As a teaching profession, we did not consistently hold ourselves accountable for learning in the classroom, and as a result we left the door wide open for others to hold us accountable. For the sake of children growing up in a global society where knowledge has grown and continues to grow at an exponential rate, that was not a bad thing. When it works as intended, accountability in education is a safeguard against the “doing your own thing” mentality that once prevailed in classrooms across America. For the sake of children there must be accountability, which equates to consistency of instruction in every classroom. However, when accountability is reduced to a “check and move on list,” we are missing the point! Accountability in education is not about saying “we did it;” it is about saying “they learned it.”

I still maintain accountability is important, and I believe testing is still probably the easiest solution for holding educators accountable for student learning. However, is it the best measure for holding all stakeholders responsible as well as motivating students to learn? The answer is a simple NO! When it comes to standardized tests, there are too many issues such as cost, time, priorities, stress, competition and accountability equity for testing to continue to be a reasonable and responsible solution. For example, look closely at each of these issues:

  1. Cost: With the current testing situation in this country, we are bankrolling the big testing companies to the tune of billions of dollars each year while educationally bankrupting our children. Why not spend those billions of dollars recruiting and enticing our nation’s brightest young minds to become teachers as well as researching and finding ways to deal with poverty, which is the real detriment to our children performing well as global citizens? If this nation wants to truly compete globally, we need to find ways to reduce poverty and develop a highly motivated and quality teacher work force!
  2. Time: With the current testing situation in this country, we are replacing valuable instructional time with standardized testing. For several weeks out of each school year, children and teachers are focused on taking a test rather than focused on classroom instruction that makes a difference in the children’s lives. Ask any teacher, and they will tell you WE TEST TOO MUCH!
  3. Priorities: With the current testing situation in this country, we are often more concerned with checking off the standards as taught than we are about what the child has learned. In all the years that students in the United States have been subjected to standardized testing there is little evidence to support testing as an accountability measure has improved our children’s global status. Finland, the top performing nation on such international assessments as PISA and TIMMs, does not force standardized testing on its children, yet Finland consistently has the top or near the top scores of all industrialized nations. Why? Low poverty and a focus on recruiting quality teachers appear to be the major factors.  
  4. Stress: With the current testing situation in this country, we had better be recruiting bright new teachers since the bright veteran teachers are leaving the profession in droves.
  5. Competition: With the current testing situation in this country, we are promoting competition not learning. With standardized testing and the swing toward merit pay for teachers, we are effectively pitting state against state, school against school, student against student, and teacher against teacher.  We are kidding ourselves when we say we focus on testing to improve learning in our schools. Standardized tests are little more than ranking tools designed to place a number on kids and teachers. In America, testing is part of this nation’s obsession with competition. We don’t always like to do what it takes to be on top, but we are a nation of Monday morning quarterbacks who love to see where we stand in the rankings, so we can crowd around the coffee machine and take pot shots at those sorry “so and sos” responsible for our poor showing.
  6. Accountability Equity: With the current testing situation in this country, standardized tests do not hold all stakeholders accountable.  To a small extent students are held accountable, and to a large extent teachers are held accountable.  However, where is the accountability for parents, community and politicians? If educational accountability in this country is to work, the finger must point in all directions, not just at the teacher.

So, what is the solution to the testing dilemma? Should we just throw testing out and do the best we can without it? On the surface that appears to be the best answer, but unfortunately history has shown as educators we often struggle to hold ourselves truly accountable for what is best for kids. That statement will probably anger many educators, but it is an unfortunate fact, so it is imperative for the sake of children that we keep some form of accountability in place. I do not pretend to have the answer, but I do contend there are answers available if we are so inclined to open our eyes and begin looking for them. What can we do to right the sinking ship? I have three suggestions that some might say border on the extreme, but maybe it is time for extreme measures:

Rather than depend on standardized tests for accountability, why not . . . .

  1. Embrace performance based assessments: Although not without some issues, especially logistical, performance based assessments make the best sense when assessing what a student knows and is able to do. Such assessments are certainly more cost effective, and place accountability not only on the teachers but squarely back on the shoulders of the student where it belongs.
  2. Require all politicians to take the standardized test and then publish their scores.  The test will only have to be given once, or not at all, before politicians cry foul and shut down testing for good. Hopefully, not before they work with educators to come up with an alternative to standardized testing; and
  3. Do away with standardized tests, and establish proficiency exams for entrance into all junior/community colleges, colleges, universities, trade schools, and skilled labor positions. When a student applies for college admission or for a skilled labor position, he must take a proficiency test.  If the student fails the test, the student is referred back to the high school he graduated from for remedial work.  For students referred back to their home school district, the cost of the remediation and the loss of first year tuition to the college or university will be shared by the school district and the parents/guardians. State politicians who failed to vote to adequately fund education for the home school district will also be held personally responsible for sharing in the cost to re-educate the student. Teachers who taught the student during his school years (K-12) will be required to provide remedial instruction to the student after school or even on weekends with no extra pay. The student will be mandated by law to attend the remedial classes as well as pay off his share of the remediation through weekend and afternoon community service. Basically, there would no longer be a need for standardized testing since accountability for education would be a shared endeavor by all.

The bottom line is that maybe it is time to change how we hold students and educators accountable for learning in the classroom. Testing has had its day, and although in many ways we are better off today than we were a few years ago, we appear to have reached a plateau with no hope of going anywhere but over the edge. Teachers and their students do not need to focus on completing a checklist for preparing for standardized tests when there are much more important things they need to be focused on – like learning.

JL

©Jack Linton, September 1, 2014

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