Testing, Budgets, Movies, and Free Days – Oh My!

Since the late 1990’s when the current testing craze first started to dig its heel into the throat of K-12 public school education, I have been an advocate for testing as a means of holding educators and students accountable for learning in the classroom.  I still am, but with growing reservations.  Originally, State Testing was intended as an accountability tool to measure student academic growth and improve classroom instruction; however, regrettably, I have watched it morph into a teacher eating, time wasting monster.  It, along with its local test counterparts (STAR, NWEA, and other commercially designed software programs aimed at remediation, student tracking, and general test taking prep), has become an accountability system of excessiveness void of accountability for the chaos and harm it is causing in the classroom.  I still believe K-12 education needs accountability, but not at the expense of the learning environment and profession it was created to protect and improve.

State Testing, Oh My!

  1. State testing was never intended to cut or waste instructional time! Countless instructional hours are replaced each school year not only by testing but by overboard remediation, test prep, and classroom filler time such as movies and free days.  It is hard to blame school administrators and teachers for short changing instruction in favor of test prep when their careers are judged by marginal black and white data that has little regard for real world data.   Beginning in April, sometimes earlier, and extending to the end of the school year, teachers are busy prepping/remediating kids for the BIG TESTS.  During these months, kids spend classroom time doing little to nothing in class other than prepping for the upcoming state tests, watching movies, and enjoying free days.  What is the use in teaching anything new once test season arrives seems to be a widespread teacher mindset.  As a result, there is very little new material taught the second half of the school year, especially the last quarter.  It could effectively be argued the last two months of the school year are instructionally a waste of time;
  2. State testing was never intended to chase good teachers out of the profession by adding stress, stress, and more stress! Why would any sane young person want to be a grade school teacher or a core subject area teacher in high school?  In today’s test happy, under the microscope world of education, I would strongly consider a non-tested area if I were a young teacher beginning my career.  All teaching can be stressful, but the same money is made for a non-tested area as for a tested area, so taking the less stressful, less scrutinized option makes the most sense; and
  3. State testing was never intended to dehumanize children and teachers. However, data is “black and white.”  It does not consider the gray areas, such as home life, that often have more impact on student success and growth than what the teacher does in the classroom.  I encourage anyone who has never walked in the shoes of a teacher to talk to one or many and hear this all too true side of the testing story.  Humans tend to be much more complicated than the data gathered to represent them.

Testing Budgets, Oh My!

  1. Nationwide, 1.7 billion dollars is spent each year on accountability testing in public schools. Mississippi alone spends over 10 million dollars annually on K-12 standardized assessments.  That does not include the dollars individual school districts spend on assessments such as STAR, NWEA, and ACT;
  2. State testing means Mississippi education dollars are padding the pockets of big testing companies while Mississippi teachers remain the lowest paid teachers in the nation; and
  3. State testing means many school districts, especially larger districts, are forced to hire extra administrative help to handle the volume and logistics of testing. Much of this extra work also falls on the shoulders of counselors and teachers who are already stretched to the maximum limit for time.

Movies and Free Days, Oh My!

  1. State Testing means classroom instruction in many schools basically comes to a stop in April and May as teachers prep and cram for the end of month and early May tests. In addition to the prep time, classroom movies and free days with no instructional purpose are widespread in the days before and after the state assessments;
  2. State Testing means as much as 25% of a school’s Instructional time is wasted on testing each year; and
  3. State Testing means over the course of a K-12 school career, students lose as much as 2.5 years of classroom instruction due to standardized testing and wasted classroom time. No wonder the United States ranks 14th in the world in education behind South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, United Kingdom, Canada, Netherlands, Ireland, Poland, Denmark, Germany, and Russia.

Questions all Mississippians need to ask about State Testing?

  1. Is state testing good for kids? Over the years, the testing model has changed frequently, so how effective it is measuring student growth and instructional strengths and weaknesses depends largely on who is asked – teachers or test makers.  Are students better off testing or would they be better served staying in the classroom and receiving the instruction they are currently missing is the question that needs to be seriously studied?
  2. Is state testing good for teachers? The stress of state testing, poor pay, wide spread disrespect for the teaching profession, and lack of or poor administrative support are four major reasons teachers leave the profession and highly intelligent young people choose other professions over a teaching career.  How long can public schools survive the growing teacher shortage is a serious question that needs to be addressed and soon!
  3. Is state testing worth the loss of instructional time? As a grandparent and former educator, the loss/waste of instructional time is my greatest concern with present testing practices.  As a grandparent it concerns me when I talk to my grandchildren about their school day and discover instructional time is being used to review for the state tests.  As a former educator, I understand there may be a need to review the week before the test but shutting down class for a month prior to the test is, in my opinion, bordering on education malpractice.  Also, it concerns me greatly when my grandchildren tell me they have spent a week watching movies and having free time in class!  I am sorry if I step on some teachers’ toes, but that is wrong and unacceptable!  Using class instructional time excessively to prep for state tests as well as waste class time showing movies or allowing classroom free days because teachers feel it is useless to teach anything new during test season is harmful to kids.  Some teachers will argue movies can be educational, and in small teacher guided increments, I might agree, but there is little educational merit in showing whole movies in class or giving students a free day in class for the sake of keeping students entertained and out of the teacher’s hair.  Such practices are babysitting and should be monitored closely and stopped immediately; and
  4. Do state tests hold anyone accountable other than teachers? Under the present accountability model, all accountability lies on the shoulders of teachers and to a small extent the students. For a system to be truly accountable, it must hold all shareholders equally accountable including educators, students, parents, and state and local government.  I bet the state legislature could find adequate funds for public schools if they were held to the same accountability fire as teachers.

    What is the bottom line for State Testing in Mississippi?

  1. State testing has led to wasting significant classroom instructional time that is negatively impacting the education of children;
  2. During the last quarter of the school year, state testing turns the school house into a house of remediation that instructionally short changes all but the lowest functioning students; and
  3. I believe state testing has helped bring about needed improvements and accountability in Mississippi public schools, but I have also come to believe it may be doing kids more harm than good, especially when the loss of instructional time is thrown into the equation. Today’s students may be short in their knowledge of geography, but they can engage in movie trivia with confidence and take a test with the best.

I am deeply saddened and disappointed to say accountability testing in Mississippi may have reached a plateau surrounded by shear drops of rocky hazardous canyons with no bottom in sight and no bridge sturdy enough to cross to the other side.  In the quest for continued improvement, good intentions have pushed public schools to the edge.  Mississippi has grown from a state education system with little accountability to a system so deep in accountability, it has lost sight of what is most important – TEACHING KIDS or DATA COLLECTION?  All too often, too much of a good thing can result in diminished returns, and that is the case, as I see it, for testing in K-12 public schools.  The current state of standardized testing has become too much of a good thing.  Testing has become a good idea gone bad!  As a direct or indirect result of state testing, classroom instruction has been abused.  Schools have traded instruction for data that is compromised by the demise of classroom instruction resulting from an overabundance of data collection.  Some testing is reasonable and needed, some loss of instructional time due to testing is to be expected, but the monster that the present system has become is unacceptable and hurting kids.

Can it be fixed?  Can a device that has morphed into an almost exclusive tool for ranking and calling out teachers be saved?  Is it possible to find a solution that would be more fiscally responsible, learning friendly, less accountability biased, and less stressful?  Is it possible to have an accountability system that doesn’t bring teachers to their knees and public schools to a standstill and maybe to the brink of extinction?  YES, it can be fixed, and it should be fixed.  Like any organization, schools need accountability, but if the accountability model jeopardizes the organization through disenfranchisement of its core practitioners (teachers) and practice (instruction), changes must be made to right the ship before it is capsized, and irrevocable damage is done.

JL

©Jack Linton, May 14, 2018

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