Stuck In The Testing Mud

700 state tests.

700 different tests sat in front of American school students in public schools this spring, 700 tests were ran through scantrons and graded, and scores are being sent back to districts everywhere so that they can make all kinds of reactionary decisions. Salaries will be paid to guys all over America who wear pleated pants, starchy short sleeved shirts, and argyle ties to tell us what these scores mean.

Each of these 700 tests were expertly, so they say, curated to include original texts, questions, answer sheets and test booklets. Somewhere, in stuffy boardrooms and state education departments all across the country there are people writing or choosing 700 more tests for next year. Big publishing is warming up their printers ready to feed the beast that is the U.S mandated testing schedule. By way of federal law, each American public school must administer state tests in math and reading each year from grade 3-8, and then again at least once in high school. They also have to sprinkle a few science tests in there for good measure.

My math is crude, but it’s based on the fact that most states take responsibility for creating their own tests in each grade and paying for the printing and grading of those exams. They change each year for obvious reasons, meaning that there were at least 50 different versions of a third grade state math test this year, and there will probably be 50 more of them next year. The number is certainly higher. Some states print multiple forms of each test administration to ensure security, and states like my own offer multiple testing windows each year in high school to retest students who didn’t pass the first time. In reality, some students have failed the Algebra exam 5 times by the time they reach their senior year.

It’s no secret to anyone who has read much of this blog that I’m actually a bit of a test apologist. I am a data nerd who makes it a point to know everything I possibly can about my students before I ever meet them. One of my favorite things to do is to build google sheets measuring different changes in GPA, SAT scores, state test scores, grades, attendance, and whatever else I can think of to make sure my students are growing.

I know...it’s sexy stuff.

But even me and my color-coded growth charts can’t pretend that this country is doing testing well. My friend sent me an article from Education Week recently that reiterated something that I think about often. In fact, most of my ideas here are just ramblings and rants that are built off of that article. Marc Tucker makes assertions in that article that are better than my own, but I think there is a local reality of his insight that warrants some more exploration. Then, maybe some action. Things could get a lot better in education if teachers took control of intelligent activism. And that “intelligent activism” would get our students a lot further than what often gets coded and written off as teacher activism today. In other words, we have to take control of our voice.

We need less testing.

We need better tests.

And as always, our mistakes in this area are hurting our most struggling students the most.

It doesn’t take much thinking about the American testing system to start to realize that it is loaded with inefficiency. It’s true that local control is important in many areas, but testing may not be one of them. We may be wasting time and money creating at least 700 different tests per year when we could just as easily standardize this across states saving everybody hundreds of hours and money. As Tucker correctly points out, more tests lead to cheaper tests that are usually dependent on multiple choice questions and lower level learning recollection. He says that none of the leading education systems in the world test nearly as much as the United States. We build more and more tests with specificity and originality, and we decrease quality and value as we do it. There is no way to ensure that students in different states are experiencing similar challenge levels.

Think about a possible alternative: we could test students half as much with nationally standardized exams that tell us so much more. Imagine students taking tests in 3rd, 6th, 8th, and 11th grade that are based more in written responses, mathematical problem solving that shows work, and allows students to demonstrate their ability on a scale removed from the inherent problems of multiple choice tests. Each state would employ graders much like College Board does every year for AP exams to rate students’ knowledge in a variety of areas. Each school and district could focus heavily on smaller groups of tested students, instead of what happens now as schools effectively shut down during testing to eliminate distractions. Teacher groups could hold accountability for performance and growth with more accuracy.

If the DOE combined resources with education research and the tech industry, we could build powerful assessments that measure so much more than what we are currently measuring. We could do so much more with the data and information and do it for much less money. The differences between rich and poor districts would shrink in this area, allowing each student and teacher to benefit from more important and helpful information than we currently have access to in our schools.  

But it’s easy to feel like all of this falls over our reach. Without organizing bodies like the AFT and NEA taking up this kind of cause, individual teachers have minimal power in influencing longstanding federal education law.

Teachers can, however, make significant changes at the district level on this issue. As we all know and dread, the testing landscape in this country has built a massive and largely unhelpful sub-testing industry full of diagnostic tests and benchmark exams. In many cases, we are asked to give tests to predict how students will do on another test, that predicts how students will do on a benchmark, that is meant to predict how they will do on the final test. I counted one year that some of my lowest performing 11th graders were being forced to test 40 days out of the year in English class, removing them from ¼ of the year of instruction. We’ve somehow convinced ourselves that “least restrictive environments” allow for just giving a lot of tests. Testing coordinators in district offices everywhere have listened more to publishing companies than to teachers. They have made decisions based in fear instead of trusting the professionals around them. Talented and thoughtful teachers are using all of their relational leverage just to get students to try on tests that even they can’t explain without stumbling, wasting that valuable relational resource to get kids to take a test that could be used to learn new concepts.

There is plenty of debate on things like the “opt out movement,” a movement that I think lacks awareness and depth, and standardized testing in general, but I have never heard anyone in education say that they think we need more testing. I have never heard a teacher support all the predictive testing that takes place in our schools. Sadly, as is the case with almost all issues in education, these tests are happening the most in our most vulnerable and under-resourced schools, giving high achieving students more chances to learn while some students are stuck in the testing mud. I have a neighbor who teaches at a high-performing suburban school and she barely even notices testing week. But at my neighborhood high school, the entire school shuts down with every teacher and student involved in some way.

This is one place where teachers have consensus and we should use it.

This is a perfect area for some calculated civil disobedience. I’m not suggesting that teachers blindly and individually fight their districts and states. Instead, teachers should work to coordinate and push back to protect our students from a world of over-testing. In most every case, we already have the information that the tests we’re giving are seeking. Teachers should use that to explain, argue, and frustrate the decision-makers in an effort to protect our classrooms from ill-informed outside overreach.

So, in this case, it’s time we all say “no.” Who is with me?