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Less Testing, Not Different Tests

June 15, 2011

accountableEarlier this afternoon I watched a webcast of a panel discussion at the Fordham Foundation, titled “Is it Time to Turn the Page on Federal Accountability in Education?”  (Event information is here; a video will be posted at some point on the Education Gadfly YouTube channel).  The event featured some interesting conversation and commentary, but I was struck by the one audience question that came from a high school student, a rising senior from Michigan.  He asked the panelists what it would take to make our country less reliant on high-stakes standardized tests, and instead place greater emphasis on critical thinking and creativity.  Among the panelists there were some responses about the next generation of assessments that will supposedly do a better job of assessing critical thinking.  There were comments about the extent to which AP tests and college applications drive that emphasis on tests for college-bound high school students.

I didn’t really hear an answer to the young man’s question.  Stop for a moment and consider what he has probably been through this past year.  (I’m basing this review on what juniors go through at my high school, which may differ slightly, but probably not greatly).  In the fall, juniors often take the PSAT test, which doesn’t necessarily carry high-stakes for all students, but it does determine National Merit Scholarship Semifinalists.  Then, as the school year goes on, students face all the usual testing and final exams in their academic classes, with the added pressure of knowing that these grades are the most important in college applications.  Then, as spring rolls around, students take their state standardized tests.  Many of them also take Advanced Placement Tests.  Then they take SAT-II tests which focus on specific subject areas.  Then, many juniors also take the SAT or ACT for the first time.

I want to be careful about assuming too much about the question that student posed, but I don’t think he was reassured in hearing about the new, Common Core-aligned tests that might someday replace current state tests.  (And it should be noted that in an effort to prevent the problems associated with one-time tests, the Common Core consortia are talking about… more tests).  I think this student was asking how we might reach a point where students – especially high school students – don’t have to take so many standardized tests – whatever type they may be.  When you consider what he’s probably experienced this school year, that would seem like a reasonable goal.  It would also be an improvement in education policy, because testing for the sake of accountability didn’t yield the intended results.  Unfortunately, he was posing the question to a panel that included some of the people whose vision of accountability has landed us in this predicament in the first place.  He was also asking non-educators, whom I feel did not really appreciate where he was coming from with his question.  I’m glad he asked, but I doubt they really heard.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2011 4:11 pm

    Well, if he was from Michigan, his “exit exam” was the ACT. All students (not just college bound students–all public school students, every single one, including students w/ IEPs) in MI take the ACT, as their final statewide assessment., by state law (also paid for by the state, if they’re in a public school or PSA).

    Which means that his final high-stakes test was not even remotely aligned with the classes he took for three and a half years. Testing, to HS students in MI, is disconnected from what they know as “school.” It’s just the last and most important test. Of course, when this plan was implemented, about four years ago, the average ACT score in MI went down about a point and a half, and the newspaper headlines read “MI students sink below national average on ACT.”

    Great piece. And your core idea–that “better” tests are not the answer, less testing is the answer–is spot-on.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      June 15, 2011 4:55 pm

      Well, can we have both – better tests and fewer of them? Thanks for the view from Michigan as well!

  2. Ryan permalink
    June 16, 2011 3:54 pm

    All Illinois juniors also are mandated to take the ACT. At the minimum, we should be fighting to not have the “effectiveness” of our students, schools, and teachers determined by one time-constrained norm-referenced bubble test. We also need to more vigorously contest the “reformers'” favorite mantra that their reforms are in the best interest of children and all critics merely want to protect the “status quo” so as to protect the interests of adults. The psychological damage caused by the undesreved authority these high stakes tests have been given by parents, kids, and too many teachers is disheartening. So many kids buy into the idea that they are “the dumb kids” because of the results of such tests. Even many who excel on these types of tests often deal with anxiety and other issues, in part because of the pressure these types of assesesments spark. The reliance on standardized tests is all about protecting the interests of adults who want to pretend to care about education issues but want the cheapest and most efficient ( and I would say most superficial ) way of measuring what students are learning. It is also about making huge profits for the companies that make such tests or that create “test-prep” material for such tests.

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