School & District Management Opinion

Timed, Standardized-Testing: Is It Worth It?

By Starr Sackstein — June 15, 2017 3 min read
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Rows of single-seat desks populate the room. The silent reminder of possible learning from a year’s worth of classes languish after the necessary strip search to sterilize the environment. There are remnants of student personality scantily hung about the room and textbooks returned, possibly never opened.

Overall, it’s a sad and anxious space, but students are forced to live among the stark debris for hours at a clip, somewhat against their wills.

The quiet is palpable except for the sound of the teacher reading the exam to the students. The room that I’m proctoring is an extended time room and most of the children taking the English exam are not native English speakers. They are permitted dictionaries and having the test read, but that certainly doesn’t ensure their comprehension of or capacity for success on the exam.

New York States Regents week began this week and as I patrolled my proctor-assigned room, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is it worth it?” or the better question, “Is this fair?” or even still, “What does this actually prove?”

Regent exams like many state exams are written by people outside of the schools and are deemed necessary for completion in certain content areas for high school graduation in New York. Given the diversity of learners in our system, particularly those students in the NYC DOE, the test shows a bias that unfairly favors those who speak, read and understand English better than the vast majority of students.

Although I agree that student learning must be assessed, I’m not convinced that a state-mandated, standardized, timed exam fairly assesses the skills and levels of all learners. There is cultural bias as well that makes the test additionally challenging for students who are new to the system from other countries and/or other systems. And it’s not just the English exam, it’s all of them.

Back in the room I spent a fraction of the testing time in (the students all received double time—a whopping six hours), a student anxiously kept asking about how much time was left as some of her classmates began to finish their tests. The time count was on the board and I had just finished reading everything.

An audible sigh from the same girl and then she muttered, “I didn’t get to finish my essay yesterday. I had to finish two and there wasn’t enough time.”

She was trying, but there was too much for her to do to decode what she was reading in English before she could even get to what the test was assessing about history.

Some of these students arrive in the United States what seems like minutes before they are required to take these tests. How fair is that? Imagine taking a test in a language you barely understand only a short time after you arrive in that place. Aside from feeling completely lost, what would that do for your willingness to keep pushing forward?

And there are too many students in this predicament!

When we were offering January Regents, I was a part of a tutoring group right before the exam and some of the students who were showing up barely spoke English; one couldn’t even ask for help in English. Feeling really concerned, I turned to a colleague confused and asked why this young lady had to take the test when she clearly didn’t speak any English. “That’s just the way that it is; everyone who is in the cohort has to take it.”

As we survive the current accountability and testing culture that exists in many big systems in the United States, we must continue to press for reform in assessment that treats children the way they deserve to be treated, like individual learners. Although I can agree that we need to have common standards and a solid idea of what mastery work looks like, we need to also accept that it can come in many shapes and sizes.

It’s time for us to think about assessing learning the same way we teach diverse and divergent learners, with a level of personalization and humanity that allows each learner to show what they know in a meaningful ways. People will say that portfolio assessment takes too much work and shows too much subjectivity, but I disagree. Every learner takes a different amount of time to produce his/her best work and the additional anxiety associated with being timed stymies that testing opportunity exponentially.

What we need to be asking is this: Who really profits from these tests and what is it actually doing? Do we learn anything about our students that can actually inform our practice for the future? In the many years I’ve been teaching, it has been rare that I’ve received anything more than scores on exams to inform future learning. And scores don’t tell me anything valuable.

How do you feel about timed, standardized testing? Is it time to dump it from education or should we keep doing it and why? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress 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.