Assessment Opinion

Yes, We Have a Testing Problem. How Can We Solve It?

By John T. McCrann — October 28, 2015 3 min read
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No one has ever overcome addiction without first acknowledging that there is a problem.

The Obama administration took that first important step on the way to recovery on Saturday, acknowledging the overemphasis on testing is harming our students. Said Secretary Duncan, “At the federal, state and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation.”

It’s true policymakers, we have a testing problem. Yet simply saying “I’m going to stop” is not going to solve it.

The administration is calling for a 2 percent cap on classroom time spent on “mandatory testing,” but this actually isn’t a significant decrease: “eighth graders, who are typically the most-tested group, spend only 2.3 percent of their time on mandatory tests.”

To solve our problem, we need to do more than just change the amount of time students are spending taking tests (though I agree that this is a problem and that the 2 percent cap is a necessary if insufficient shift). We need a shift in our understanding of what the tests mean and how they can be used.

Here are two things policymakers should be thinking about in making these changes:

1. Recognize that tests scores do not define a student.

Teachers know that they cannot assume that students know something simply because the teacher said it or put it on a handout. Certainly, a test is a great tool to gain information about students’ knowledge acquisition and fact recall, but it is a limited tool.

We now have incredibly strong evidence that even the most researched standardized test, the SAT, is not as good at predicting students’ success in college as teachers’ grades. In other words, we spent $12,401 per student trying to find out something that the students’ teachers could have told us (those of us on each side of the aisle should work against this kind of government waste, I’ve written about this before too).

Schools, districts, and states need to find ways to use the knowledge that teachers in their building have to communicate outside their schools about student achievement.

At our school we use teacher-created benchmarks as well as two high-stakes performance assessments (students must pass “Gateway” to go to 11th grade in each subject, and “Capstone” to graduate). We have developed systems to communicate expectations around these assessment to students and their families. This kind of community-based assessment system has more meaning for our community than a standardized one that would come down upon us from the district or state.

2. Acknowledge and incentivize meaningful assessment that is not standardized testing

I’ve written about our school’s experience in performance assessment on this blog (here and here). As a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium we are a part of a proud tradition that still goes unrecognized in many education policy circles. There are great examples of performance assessment schools in Kentucky and in the Expeditionary Learning Network as well.

If policymakers actually are serious about solving the testing problem they will highlight these examples and find ways to incentivize these kinds of schools in every state and district.

I do believe that there are places where robust regulation is needed to ensure students are truly growing (this is especially important in states, districts, and schools that have shown a pattern of under-serving certain groups of students relative to others). But there ought to be mechanisms for schools to prove that they can enact an alternative vision that maintains equity without sacrificing standards.

I smoked cigarettes for a number of years as a young adult. From time to time -- in a bout of frustration with the disgusting addiction -- I would throw away a half a pack and swear not to buy another. Then, a few days or weeks later, I’d find myself with a cigarette in hand.

Finally, I realized that quitting smoking was not about giving something up, but rather about adopting healthy habits. I started running, eating healthier, and spending time with friends in smoke-free environments. The more I did these things, the less reliant I was on the cigarettes. I never really “quit smoking.” I just stopped wanting to do it and haven’t wanted to in eight years.

Over-testing is another disgusting habit. We should quit, but going “cold turkey” by simply trying to give it up won’t work. Instead, we should adopt healthy assessment habits that will make over-testing unnecessary.

Photo: Students engage in “roundtable” defense of a performance assessment in my class. Photo by Principal Kate Burch.

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The opinions expressed in Prove It: Math and Education Policy 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.