Overtesting Students: Some Truths about Standardized Testing

Many of us have heard the expression, “Too much of a good thing is bad for you”.  It is no wonder that when people, groups, or organizations take things to the extreme, that misconceptions come about.  Additionally, not every person is acquainted with every other person’s work.  For example, I don’t know everything that a doctor does, so therefore, if the doctor is prescribing a lot of medication to patients, it may or may not be warranted, despite what my perception is around prescribing the medication.

Assessment is no different, and honestly, to some degree, standardized testing has earned itself a bad name.  I’m not saying that I am a huge supporter of these types of tests, but with anything, they have their place and I suppose if utilized appropriately, could have some added value.  For the general public, there is clearly not enough understanding about the types of assessments that provide educators information about student performance.  Perhaps that is the first place to start.

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Summative assessments have been likened by some educators, as an “autopsy” because of the finality of their administration and results.  These types of tests, like so many high stakes state tests, often times are administered near the end of the year and by the time the results come back, do not offer educators a lot of time to go back and reteach or change instruction.  Generally, these tests are for policy makers, who use the results to drive policy.  Now, for some districts and states, these tests take up a small amount of time and schools work hard to use the information garnered from them to change instruction for the group that had taken them and also determine what they may do differently regarding instruction for the students coming to them.  Other states use as many as 30 days to administer state driven tests, which seems to be the extreme and erodes from the amount of teaching time that classroom teachers have to engage with students.

Formative assessments, on the other hand, are likened to “check ups” because they are periodic, not final in nature, and provide teachers and instructors the opportunity to check in on student understanding and change the nature of their teaching before finally assessing students.  They provide more opportunity for teachers to determine where students have clarity, and where they have gaps in understanding.  Additionally, these formative assessments also are much shorter in length, and can be done quickly in the classroom with the teacher or team of teachers using results to quickly adjust teaching so to affect learning outcomes for students.

Universal screening tools are just that; screening tools.  They provide an indicator that something might be needed on behalf of the student to help them be more successful.  They are quick in nature, and usually administered across groups of students to determine if further probing may be needed.  Some of these tools may be used to “progress monitor” children to see if changes in instruction produce changes in student learning.

In all three assessment scenarios, I always think about that expression, “Too much of a good thing is bad for you”.  Massachusetts is a very MCAS driven state, with results being extremely public and along with other states, penalties being tied to lower than expected results for aggregate and disaggregated groups of students.  While I do not believe in “teaching to a test”, I do believe in the following:

1.  States need to be sure that their curriculum frameworks are at the LEAST, aligned to those national standards that have been designed to help students meet with success after leaving school (K-12).

2.  School districts need to review curricula and ensure that they are not only aligned to state and national standards but that they are rigorous and engaging for learners.

3.  Leaders in schools need to ensure that the district curricula is not only taught, but that structures are in place for those students that do not meet the standards, so that they have an opportunity to be retaught in a way that helps them reach the standard (RTI).

If the above three things happen, then in fact, teachers are teaching to the standards, which students should have mastered and then they are only needing to have some teaching around test taking strategies.

In the end, it really isn’t about the test, and I wouldn’t advocate teaching to one either.  Additionally, that test is just one snapshot of a student’s performance and therefore, the formative assessments a classroom teacher gives, if aligned to the standards, shows a student’s performance over time and may indeed show a more robust picture of what kids know in regards to the standards.
Districts and states need to be smart about balanced assessment systems and not lose sight of the teaching that needs to take place with students.  That teaching does not only mean academic standards, but citizenship, pro social skills, and all of the other teachable moments that help our students be well rounded, global citizens.  While many of us may not like standardized tests, good practices help ensure that they aren’t the “standard” of how we assess our children on a regular basis.

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