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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

When Will the Testing Obsession End?

By Peter DeWitt — July 09, 2014 4 min read
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The focus on testing is an anchor on the leg of all of those teachers who are striving to be more innovative with their students.

Utica Schools (Central, NY) recently announced that several of their elementary and middle schools are going to go to an extended day that will bring students in from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They received a 4 million dollar grant to make the changes. Parents found out through the media instead of the school system, but the district leaders said they learned about the Extended Learning Time Grant.

The unfortunate piece of the announcement was when Superintendent Bruce Karam was quoted as saying, “The purpose is to enhance academics and increase test scores.” Of course, every school should set the goal to enhance academics...although it would be better to say “enhance learning.” After all, academics puts the emphasis on the subject and learning puts the emphasis on the student.

The sad part of the commentary is not just the anticipated loss of modified sports, but the idea that part of the purpose of the extended day is to “increase test scores.” The Utica Superintendent’s announcement comes at a time when U.S. Congressman (N.Y.) Chris Gibson recently introduced a bill to Congress that would limit the use of standardized testing in schools. The Bill says,

Student Testing Improvement and Accountability Act - Amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to eliminate the requirement that students be tested against state academic content and achievement standards in mathematics and reading or language arts in each of grades three through eight."

Thankfully, Congressman Gibson seems to understand how out of control the use of high stakes testing has become in the US. He most likely understands that testing has little to do with guiding student learning, and more to do with misguided accountability of teachers....something their school leaders should be responsible for in the school.

Lack of Equity

Clearly, Utica schools are in crisis mode. They have experienced low test scores over the past decade, and the extension of the school day is a way for them to combat the low scores. It’s a reactive measure in a time when test scores not only matter, they can be one of the reasons your school district gets taken over by the state. I’m sure that the superintendent is also trying to find ways to better support the children of Utica.

Sadly though, it’s a commentary on where we still are in public education. One school district receives a grant to extend the day in order to “increase test scores” while other school districts have fairly high test scores and want to become more innovative in learning. Some schools can focus on learning, while others have to focus on testing.

We discuss technology, and 21st century skills...14 years after the 21st century began. We talk about Career and College Ready at the same time we overload teachers with modules that are 700 pages a piece. And we still talk about testing and the need to increase test scores over and over again.

Testing, where students of various backgrounds and abilities sit down to “show what they know” through an archaic method of pencil and paper.

Many educators are fully behind making education stronger. Sure, there are others who want to keep doing what they are doing, picking the same lesson plans out of their filing cabinet on the same day they chose the same lesson last year. Strangely, those teachers have students who do well on tests because they are used to paper and pencil...and sitting and waiting for their next instruction.

But the focus on testing is an anchor on the leg of all of those teachers who are striving to be more innovative with their students. If it wasn’t a major focus on schools, superintendents would never use it as one of the main reasons for extending the school day.

When Will We Focus on Learning?

Many teachers....many of them...assess their students. They use formative and summative assessment where students show what they know through an application of assessed skills through portfolios, projects and interviews. Unfortunately, that only seems to matter to the teachers and the students...not the state or federal education department.

When superintendents are interviewed and the best answer is that their extended day will help increase test scores and strengthen academics, it shows that we have a really big problem. Our focus continues to be on a test and subjects, and it does not at all seem to focus on learning.

Let’s hope that U.S. Congressman like Chris Gibson of New York can bring some balance to our present state of affairs in education. We should hope that the ways teachers assess students, through the use of portfolios, projects and interviews can become the norm, because we know that it provides a more balanced approach to assess student learning.

High stakes testing is not just too long for students at a young age, it does not provide teachers with real time effective feedback to guide student learning. And increasing test scores should never be the main reason we bring children into school for longer days.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.