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Standardized redundancy: The failure of American testing?

February 8, 2016

Ken Wright

Test time!

These words are, often as not, met by groans in classrooms across America.

And, if you’re a student, you’ve most likely heard those dreaded words quite recently. Testing rates have shot up in the past couple decades, over a 40% increase just since 2000. This so-called testing epidemic has left many students and teachers scratching their heads wondering, what happened?

The American Federation of Teachers blames new policy coming in from the federal level. In their 2013 report, they stated, “Despite a goal of shining the light on student needs, it took us in another direction, away from valuing the essential skills of persistence, critical thinking and collaboration.”

The law in question, called No Child Left Behind, was passed under the Bush Administration, and tied many different funding measures to new standardized tests. Beyond the added tests themselves, the law shifted the focus away from instruction and toward assessment as a way to guarantee success of students.

Current requirements have students spending around 4-5 full school days taking state and federal standardized tests. Total time spent varies by grade.

AP
Current requirements have students spending around 4-5 full school days taking state and federal standardized tests. Total time spent varies by grade.

Even though there has been some reform at the federal level, it appears that many of the parts of No Child Left Behind, including state testing like the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, will remain in place.

Besides standardized tests, the report also shed some light on classroom testing trends. Analyzing various schools around the country, the AFT report showed that the average student had over 160 hours of testing and test prep per year. This means that today’s students are testing at almost 150% the rate of students at the turn of the century.

The core argument behind frequent vs. infrequent testing comes down to a teacher’s obligation to their students. Must the instructor truly leave “no child behind,” or should they do what is in the best interest of the class as a whole? This question drives many of the differing testing practices in schools and across the nation, and reaches across the political aisle to create real roadblocks to reform of academic requirements.

Controversy aside, it’s clear that testing–standardized and otherwise–has experienced a drastic increase. AVHS is no exception to the trend.

To figure out the status of testing requirements and procedures at our school, I talked to math teacher and testing coordinator Mrs. Kristin Peterson.

When asked about what trends in testing she’s observed in her decades of teaching, she commented, “I have definitely noticed more required testing in the past few years.”

And it’s no wonder why. With all that schools have at stake over these tests, the pressure to deliver positive results is higher than ever. Yet, this pressure comes at a time when testing procedures create many barriers to encouraging the full effort from students taking standardized tests.

I was able to get the full picture by speaking to AVHS Principal Mr. Steve Degenaar. He expressed dissatisfaction with the current testing procedure in place, and claimed that it hurt the academic appearance of strong schools like Apple Valley.

“It was much easier when there was a graduation requirement attached to these tests,” he said. “Now that that’s gone, it’s very difficult to get students to try their hardest on these tests. We’ve started to notice the scores from AVHS slipping.

“Myself and many other principals would like a single comprehensive test, like the ACT, that all students take that they care about and do their best on. I think it will be like this eventually, but the state is very slow to change this type of thing.”

While there have been some calls for standardized tests to be streamlined, including from school administrators, citing both the inefficacy of tests and wastes of class time, the current political climate makes the odds for reform slim, at least for now. However, there are some problems that schools have the power to fix on the local level.

Testing rates have shot up in the past couple decades, over a 40% increase just since 2000.”

When asked whether new state and federal testing has affected the incentives for classroom testing, Mr. Degenaar stated, “For math I think it’s true. In a lot of classes there is immense pressure on teachers to make sure students meet standards. I think this can push some teachers to test to make sure that this happens.”

This idea that teachers at the school, especially in intensive classes, are known to devote large amounts of time to testing, was reflected in my conversations with instructors. Mrs. Janelle Moynihan, math teacher at Apple Valley, shared her thoughts on testing:

“With review days, quizzes, and the test itself, I’d probably say that I spend 45-50 days a year focusing on testing,” she said, speaking about her Honors Precalculus course. “Thinking about it now, it seems like a lot–almost a half a trimester.”

Mrs. Moynihan, however, defended the use of tests. “I think it’s about accountability,” she said. “Students don’t really start studying until the test starts to come around.”

Science teacher Mr. Michael Otto shared the opposing viewpoint on testing. Specifically, he expressed concern over the large number of high stakes tests that students are expected to take.

“There are some tests I really think there’s too much of. The SAT, MCAs, the ACT, the PSAT for juniors,” Mr. Otto said. “They’re told that this test is really important for their future, and it can really worry students.

“It can really get redundant, almost excessive.”

Testing obviously differs based on the structure of the class and material, and chapter-based instructors tend to favor a model with heavier testing. Teaching style and preference are also reflected in the quantity of tests given.

Although teachers may be divided over testing practices, student opinions appear to be a bit more unified. After talking to a few students at Apple Valley, the near unanimous response was that testing is one of the largest sources of stress from school.

“It can be really stressful when tests happen close together,” said junior Alyssa Gits. “I feel like there’s just not enough time for me to prepare.”

“Tests are just such a large percentage of your grade. It’s hard to make up for a bad test,” said junior Maria Larson. “I definitely stress out the most over tests.”

“The one test I was really worried about was the ACT,” said junior Ian Bender, speaking about the primary college entrance exam at AVHS. “It just seems like a really important test that you need to do well on.”

Senior Prince Hyeamang also felt some anxiety over placement tests. “Besides your transcript, it’s one of the only things that colleges can see of you. The margin of error is so slim as well,” he said.

It’s no surprise that juniors felt this way, as studies have shown that eleventh grade is the most tested year in school.

But while the results of classroom tests may be relatively fleeting, high stakes testing–especially college entrance exams–can sink a student’s prospects. A baseline for ACT and SAT scores are the most frequently listed requirements in college admissions guidelines, and if students don’t reach these goals, they may very well get denied from the college of their dreams.

Analyzing various schools around the country, the AFT report showed that the average student had over 160 hours of testing and test prep per year.”

Indeed, especially for students who take advanced courses, or who are involved in extracurriculars, the workload and stress associated with strenuous testing can sometimes prove to be tremendous. This means the changes that teachers make to their curriculum are all the more important to ensure the success of their students.

You needn’t search any further than the walls of the school to find inventive testing practices being put into place. Many AVHS teachers have found ways to cut down or change classroom testing without losing its valuable instructive benefits.

Mr. Otto teaches biology and anatomy at the school, and he attempts to incorporate different cooperative testing structures in his classes. One in particular is the “cooperative quiz.” Students take a quiz, and then take the same quiz in a small group of their peers. Scores are given by the average of the two quizzes.

“I really like the cooperative test model,” he says. “We live in a world where we need to work together. I also think it can be very valuable to learn from what classmates have to offer.”

Many other courses incorporate “corrections,” which allows students to learn from their mistakes while earning back some much-needed points by correcting their errors, along with providing an explanation for the correct answer.

Innovation in teaching is one of the best ways to insure that students attain portable skills, meaning those that can be used outside as well as inside the classroom. In a world where heavy formative testing has become the norm in the U.S., teachers and schools should attempt to test in a way that informs, rather than impedes teaching.

“A teacher’s duty is to be inspirational just as much as they are instructive,” said Mr. Robert Helgeson of the English department. “We’re here to reach every student.”

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