By the time students graduate from a public school in Texas, they will have spent 34 school days taking a standardized test.
Think about that for a moment: For nearly five full weeks of school, they will sit silently in their desks crossing out answer choices, listening to directions, and bubbling in answer sheets. And that doesn't include the days in class they will spend taking mock tests, answering practice questions, or retaking tests if they fail them the first time. Testing has become so out of control in Texas that even members of the State Board of Education have called it excessive.
Texas students are hardly the only ones drowning in a deluge of tests. In Tennessee, 32 days are currently devoted to testing; in California, 28; and in Oklahoma, 25.
And things are about to get even worse. A consortium of 45 states recently adopted the new Common Core state standards, and in so doing have begun the process to expand testing beyond reading and math to cover subjects like foreign languages, economics, the arts, and physical education. Architects of the Common Core have also hinted at starting testing as early as kindergarten and continuing tests all the way through 12th grade. Some have even speculated that the Common Core will necessitate pre- and post-tests for every subject, effectively doubling the time students spend testing.
All this testing has turned schools across the country into test-prep factories, where test-taking strategies and rote skills take priority over deeper learning. Fearing the sanctions that accompany poor scores, some schools have opted to give weekly assessments that align with the tests students will take at the end of the year. A colleague of mine who teaches in Texas estimated that 32 full days of instruction at his school — about one sixth of the school year — were spent administering these practice tests.
We cannot expect teachers to provide quality instruction when they are handcuffed by a curriculum that involves so much testing. More time for testing means less time for teaching; more practice tests mean less authentic assessments; more frequent testing means less frequent reflection on student progress.
Excessive testing also poisons students' attitudes towards education and schooling. When students learn to equate achievement with high scores on state tests, they see other methods for demonstrating learning as less important. Projects, performances, writing assignments, and other forms of self-directed learning don't matter as much when students know they won't appear on the test. As a result, students might come to value the type of superficial knowledge that multiple-choice tests measure over the type of deeper thinking that they do not measure.
Finally, standardized tests are designed by testing companies, not teachers. Increasing standardized testing reduces teachers' autonomy to decide what topics are important and how they should be taught, and increases testing companies' control over what children learn.
As a teacher, I do not oppose all forms of standardized testing. It is helpful to have a few standard measures of performance that allow teachers and policy makers to compare students from different classrooms, schools, and states.
But it does not follow that more testing means more learning.
In fact, many alternatives to standardized testing exist that assess students' creativity, problem-solving ability, and higher-order thinking skills without hijacking the curriculum to make room for test prep. Two forms of alternative assessment that have already seen success are portfolio-based assessments and performance exams.
Portfolio-based assessments ask students and teachers to collect examples of student work, over the course of a school year, into an individualized portfolio. At the end of each year, students are asked to reflect on the progress they have made and set goals for the future. Portfolio assessments are already in use in Britain, Australia, and Vermont. Students in my English classes use the portfolio method to compile writing samples and document progress, giving them and me a deeper understanding of their learning than any set of multiple-choice questions could provide.
Performance exams ask students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills through application. Instead of recalling isolated facts and bubbling in answer sheets, students use what they have learned to perform an experiment, or solve a realistic problem, or compose an authentic piece of writing. Many students encounter these forms of assessment in school already — science fairs, plays, debates, and other forms of academic competition or display are all performance exams.
The United States currently spends $1.7 billion every year administering standardized tests. As states implement more tests following the adoption of the Common Core, that cost will likely increase.
Alternative forms of assessment exist, and can measure student learning better at a lower cost. We would be wise to reexamine our decisions regarding standardized testing in schools.