To Test or Not to Test? That is the Question

5843577306_1a98149efb_o.jpgBy Bill Waychunas – “Because I said so.”  No words that a teacher (or parent) ever wants to utter. That’s how I felt as I pathetically begged my 9th graders to do their best on a recent PARCC test, which is the newer, more rigorous, common core version of standardized state assessments.

My stomach turns thinking about the questions they asked and the half-baked responses I gave as I tried to give them a quick pep talk before settling in for testing.

“Does this count for a grade?” – No, but…

“When will we get our scores back?” – Probably not until next school year…

“What happens if we just go to sleep during the test?” – Nothing really except that I’ll wake you up…

“So, why does this test even matter?” …because I said so?

Inspiring, right?

Generally speaking, I believe in testing and assessment as a way of verifying student understanding and for teacher and school-wide reflection on their effectiveness. After all, every teacher assesses students in some way; informal and formal assessments happen every day in class as students volunteer correct or incorrect answers, complete homework assignments, or do ANY assignment. Show me a teacher who doesn’t assess or test their students in some way, and I’ll show you an ineffective teacher who likely has no end goals for their course or who rambles aimlessly through content assuming that “if I said it, then they learned it.”

Tests are not inherently bad. But, they can certainly be used in a way that is hurtful to our education system. The PARCC and Smarter Balance tests will provide information and insights into teaching and learning that were previously unavailable. Never before have we been able to compare the schools in different states, districts, and cities in such a widespread and consistent manner. The potential to make more informed policy decisions to improve our education system based on such assessments is enormous. But, by not testing smart, we risk wasting everyone’s time in the process.

Here are some questions that schools, district, and state policy-makers should be asking so we can become smarter about standardized testing in our classrooms:

  1. Will this test be useful? If the test doesn’t tell the teacher, student, parent, or school anything that they can use to take action on behalf of a student, then it is probably a waste of time. Tests should show us what students know, as well as where they are struggling so that we can make plans to remediate misconceptions, target instruction towards skills that haven’t been mastered, and push students to new more difficult levels when they’re ready. We cannot keep giving tests just for the sake of giving tests; there should always be a good reason to give them.
  2. When will we get the results? If it takes months, or even weeks, to get the results back from an assessment, then it’s generally too late to do anything with them, making them generally useless to a classroom teacher or parent.
  3. Does this test really matter? I’m not arguing for high-stakes testing, but tests should count for something. There are other ways to make tests matter than giving them a grade or threatening a student with repeating a grade level if they don’t reach a certain cut-score. If no one at the school particularly cares about the results of the test, then we should really be asking ourselves why we are taking the test in the first place.
  4. How much time are we spending on testing? A high-quality and thorough test takes time, but that doesn’t mean that we should be testing all the time. Some schools and districts spend so much time on testing, that they seriously curtail the amount of time spent actually teaching. Lots of people like to blame this on federal or state testing requirements, but the reality is that, in most cases, we are doing this to ourselves through district or school-level decisions. I’m not sure that I have an exact percentage of time that should be spent on testing, but the “law of diminishing returns” is at play here. By only using tests that are actually valuable to instruction, we can avoid hitting the avoidable point of assessment and data overload.

This is by no means a comprehensive, fool-proof formula for solving all of the woes related to standardized testing, but by taking some time to make more thoughtful decisions about what, how often, and why we test, we can perhaps find a fair middle-ground between assessment and instruction. For my sake, I hope that we can find this middle ground soon so that I never again have to utter the words “because I said so” as the empty and hollow reason for taking a test.

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