By Rebecca Fagge
- Testing is expected as part of education.
- Important questions remain unanswered concerning testing in NC public schools.
- NC policymakers need to re-evaluate the frequency, quantity and appropriateness of current testing.
You don’t have to be an educator to know it is reasonable to periodically test student knowledge. There are, however, three major criticisms with current testing in North Carolina public schools: we test too much, it’s too time consuming and it’s too much of a gamble.
Too Many Tests?
Testing begins in the early grades. Kindergarten teachers must observe and record the developmental progress of students in several areas such as emotional literacy, pencil grip, and manipulation. Also, in the first month of each school year all K-3 students must be assessed in phonics/reading skills. These assessments, called benchmarks, are administered individually. If a child can’t demonstrate a level of proficiency, that student must automatically be reassessed every few weeks. The judgement of proficiency isn’t made by the teacher, but is made by the timed program that is pre-loaded on a digital device. Another required benchmark occurs in January and a final one in May, along with all the periodic reassessments in between. In Grade 3, students are mandated to participate in the benchmarks, as well as a variety of other reading assessments.
Starting in third grade, and continuing through middle school, students spend two or three days testing at the end of each quarter. Early in the last quarter of the year most teachers begin to feel the pressure to practice material the way it will be presented on the year-end tests. Teaching to the test is not a new theme, but the negative consequences of poor test results (as calculated by a private company using statistical data) looms larger each year for individual students, teachers in general, and now for schools and administrators. High school teachers also feel the pressure to push students to perform well on end-of-course and advanced placement tests.
The general public may not be aware, but teachers and schools receive scores based partially on the results of student testing. Some eventually hope to pay teachers and administrators based on these scores, even though the calculation is difficult to understand. While teachers understand the push for performance pay, I can tell you that most educators find that particular compensation plan distasteful, since such scores usually derive from many variables that can’t be controlled solely by the teachers in the classroom.
Tests Can Drain Teachers’ Time
One year I tracked every minute that I spent assessing and re-assessing the phonics and reading skills of my first graders. By the end of that school year I had spent the equivalent of one entire quarter of my daily allotted time for reading instruction on these mandated assessments. One-fourth of my time to teach reading skills was spent collecting data that often frustrated me and my young students. Teachers are told that these assessments are to help them understand their students’ progress and then make subsequent planning decisions, but most teachers learn very little and then must spend time to devise more meaningful ways to truly monitor student progress. Again, this is just the testing I had to do for reading; math testing in the early grades also required periodic assessments to be recorded on confusing paperwork, most of which was shredded at the end of each year.
Classroom teachers are required to collect so much useless data that they have come to resent rather than respect it. As one teacher asked, “Do we really need up to 7-8 reading passages and 52 math word problems four or more times per year to learn more about a child’s performance and growth?”
Over-Testing Can Harm Students’ Enthusiasm for Learning
Although most teachers attempt to shield their students from the stress of testing, smart kids have caught on to its importance and weight. I have heard students comment, “I’m not good in reading ‘cause I’m only in yellow.” “I like school, but we take a lot of tests.” “What I’ve learned in 13 years is how to take tests.”
I wonder if we can cite enough student comments to balance these. We should hear, “I love learning!” “My teachers make school interesting.” “I feel prepared for college or a job.” Do NC schools maintain the enthusiasm for learning seen in most kindergarten students? I don’t think so, and neither do many parents.
Common Core, Federal Dollars Still Have Outsized Influence
Years of Common Core’s influence produced curriculum goals and subsequent test questions which were often developmentally inappropriate. Currently NC says that we are not teaching or testing under Common Core standards, but even the newest NC K-12 English/Language Arts standards, which will go into use at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, are written in a similarly vague form.
For example, kindergarten students will be taught to “explore nuances in word meanings.” Even seasoned teachers are confused by tricky wording and left wondering how deeply to teach a standard. Teachers spend time at mandated meetings trying to decide exactly what to teach and then spend time practicing how the test will ask for the information. Add that to the time taking the periodic tests that ask for the information in a vague way and you have wasted lots of time.
One might ask, “Why do schools do so much testing?” More often than not it’s usually to comply with conditions of a federal grant or regulation. About 11 percent of all funding in North Carolina public schools comes from the federal government. Yet the federal government imprint on testing and education policy is much bigger than its imprint on funding.
Focus More on Teaching, Not Tests
This is the essential question for all educators, policymakers, and families. If NC was serious about effectively educating its students, decisions would be made to pull back from this testing focus. We would take the time to analyze both our goals and our resources and we would begin a move back to common sense education by concentrating on developing a superior teaching force, concentrating on the factors that boost student achievement and working to expand educational opportunities for all students.
We could track student progress using scores from NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) or by using yearly standardized tests such as ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills). Teachers could still administer reasonable quizzes and tests as needed to guide their planning. Most importantly, it would give our schools the time and freedom to actually teach necessary subjects without being micromanaged from Washington, D.C.
For most of us, regular quizzes, chapter tests, and even the dreaded pop quizzes were a regular part of our education. We also took some form of yearly standardized testing and some of us took the PSAT/SAT. The stain of Common Core is still visible in NC in the overly-controlled and highly confusing questions asked on tests in both reading passages and math word problems. All this collection of data and scores from K-12 students has not led to greater proficiency for most students. What it has contributed to is more frustration for students and teachers, less time to spend teaching the subject matter in a deep and meaningful way, and an increased number of families frustrated with the testing obsession found in North Carolina’s public schools.
Rebecca Fagge is a Civitas contributor and a former teacher with the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Public Schools.