Testing has become an integral part of our curriculum in school today. Whether it is for measuring performance, or determining if a student is qualified to move on, we as a nation have begun to use testing to create a sort of baseline for where students should be at any given point in their schooling. To put it bluntly, we love to test in the US. The question however, is do we love it too much?
As mentioned before, this level of testing was created in order to set a so-called “academic standard” in our schools to assure that students were receiving the education they needed. In the “No Child Left Behind Act,” the tests’ purpose were to “develop and implement ‘challenging’ academic standards in reading and math,” as well as test children annually in grades three through eight to measure their progress. On paper it seems fine; create a baseline for the education system to follow and if a student is not ready, they could have another year to let them catch up. The flaws in this concept however, come from:
- The sheer number of tests students take every year. According to PBS, “students take as many as 20 standardized assessments annually and an average of 10 tests in grades three to eight.”
- New tests with new material are made every year, but that does not mean students are receiving the new material to study. “The textbooks that have the certain material that will be on the test aren’t always available,” says Penny Greer, a retired school teacher. “If we’re going to keep making more tests, we need to offer the new material.”
- The definition of a standardized test. According to the Glossary of Education Reform, “a standardized test is any form of test that (1) requires all test takers to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from common bank of questions, in the same way, and that (2) is scored in a “standard” or consistent manner, which makes it possible to compare the relative performance of individual students or groups of students.”
- Testing has become a business. According to another PBS report, in 1955 the amount of money made off of test sales was $7 million (adjusted to the dollar in 1998). In 1997, test sales were $263 million, an increase of more than 3,000 percent.
Each of these issues are key to understanding the problem with testing.
How Much Do We Truly Test?
According to the same PBS report mentioned earlier, in research done the Council of the Great City Schools, a group that represents large urban districts, students will take an average of 113 standardized tests between kindergarten and grade 12. Testing this much creates several problems in our schools. For starters, testing this much takes time out of actually learning material. The report adds that 1.6 percent of instructional time was spent testing. When you have to sacrifice this much time testing, it begs the question how much more our students could be learning. But what is this doing to our students? According to Psych Central, making students test this much during their adolescent years can be dangerous, because their minds are already fragile as it is. “Increased pressures to perpetually produce high test scores only add stress to their already vulnerable mental states.” If we want our students to perform better in schools, we need to lessen their load. Holding students to the standards of these tests are not only hazardous to their education, but their health is well.
Another issue with testing too much is the implications and pressures of failing. We judge students based on their test scores, but some teachers believe that is too harsh. “What if they just have a bad day,” asks Kelley Kirby, a teacher for Keller, Texas’ school district. “What if they’re sick? There are students who have good grades all year long, but when they don’t pass the big test, we punish them and say they can’t move on.”
New Tests and New Methods, but Old Material
Every year we create new tests, we create new ways to instruct students, but we give students the same old resources every year. “The only way they’re going to get students to succeed in these tests, is by giving them required material,” says Kirby. “The people giving the tests to these students need to be accountable for offering the material too.” According to Scholastics, states buy new text books for one subject per year (called the textbook-adoption cycle). This means that each subject in school can typically be stuck with a textbook for 7-10 years. The reason for this is because on average, textbooks cost around $100 per book, so resupplying an entire school with new textbooks would be difficult.
Yet when talking about the textbook cycle, different school districts are on different cycles in every state. This essentially deflates the effectiveness of a standardized test. If students across different districts (and sometimes even different schools in specific districts) are reading different textbooks, then to a certain degree they are reading different material. If the purpose of a standardized test is to make everything the same, be it the tests and environment, why would the material not be the same as well? This means right off the bat, the people who make these tests, but do not provide the appropriate material for the test, are putting students at a disadvantage. It may seem crazy to say we need to resupply textbooks every year, but that is the standard being set by the tests.
Standardized tests not only forget to take into account the difference in material, but the difference in how teachers are teaching their classes. “If you have two classes take a test based on the same curriculum and material, and one passes and one fails, how is that the students’ fault,” asks Kirby.
Another sweeping change we are seeing in education today is the constant turnover of new curriculum and new methods (such as the new Common Core math system). “We are given a brand new way to teach every other year it seems,” says Kirby. She proposes rather than using testing to decide whether a student is ready to move on, using testing to determine if the new curriculum is working.
With all of the flaws in testing our students this much, why have we not seen a change? It all comes down to money. Testing has become big business. According to PBS, the testing market’s value today is estimated to be anywhere from $400 million to $700 million. The four companies, Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing and NCS Pearson, write 96 percent of the tests given at state level. This has become a problem, as any reform that may try to take place has been stunted by education firms lobbying. According to the Washington Post, “the four corporations that dominate the US standardized testing market spend millions of dollars lobbying state and federal officials – as well as sometimes hiring them – to persuade them to favor policies that include mandated student assessments.” These policies would help to create a $2 billion annual testing business. Pearson, Houghton, McGraw-Hill and the Educational Testing Service has collectively spent more than $20 million in lobbying from 2009 to 2014.
At the end of it all, it seems like an uphill battle to fix not only this aspect of education, but the other flaws that exist in it as well. What is the solution? Unfortunately, it is more or less the same to a lot our other problems: hold politicians more accountable, whether it is when they deal with lobbyists, or passing legislation, and have citizens participate more in the political process. We need to realize the hypocrisies that exist in our testing system. Several teachers across the country have made it a point to say these methods are not working, but nothing is done about it. The original concept seems beautiful: create a standard that we hold students to and help them meet it. Yet it is not that simple. There are many facets that have to be considered when creating a standard. There are many changes that need to be made, not only in testing, but in education in general. We have to make changes, and it has to be soon.