We are not just nearing the end of the school year, but the end of the testing season. From March to June, schools are deluged by tests, after spending much of September through February prepping for the tests. As politicians and pundits perpetuate the myth that confuses standardized testing with learning, students’ education suffers, and teachers are blamed. Schools spend less and less time working on what would improve the educational experience of all of its students; instead spending more time and resources trying to survive wave after wave of new tests.
I teach at South High School in Minneapolis. It is a school that highlights the ridiculous realities of our obsession with testing, although I’m sure most every other school could tell a similar story.
According to the latest US News and World Report High School Ranking, South High ranked the 24th best high school in the state of Minnesota, out of 786, and in the top 5% of high schools nationally. At the same time, No Child Left Behind rules label South as a “Stage 4 AYP” school. This requires the school to take “corrective action” and prepare for “restructuring.” While neither the US News ranking or the NCLB labeling actually tell us about the real quality of education at a school, they are both based on the same testing data. The disparate results exemplify the failed nature of standardized tests.
Despite the mixed messages, our District is requiring students in all schools to take a new series of standardized tests this year called the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). This is apparently being done to improve our scores on the state mandated MCA tests, and includes 9th graders in the high schools.
The MAP test has two parts - math and reading, and they are taken once in the fall and again in the spring. At South, ninth graders took the fall portion during their English classes, and are taking the spring portion now during their social studies classes. This means students in my five World History classes need to spend two class periods taking the two parts of this test. While two days of missed class time might not seem like too much, the set up requirements of the computerized test, along with the limited computer lab space results in the testing of my students being scattered over six days rather than just two.
The tests cost the district about $12 per student, which amounts to at least $400,000 annually, and this is only one of the many standardized tests given in Minneapolis Public Schools. The District has also recently negotiated a contract with teachers that will add four additional student days next year. They are paying millions of dollars for these four additional days. The merit of these additional days is itself questionable, but why claim students need more days in school only to use up more of that time taking standardized tests?
Every few days a new story comes out about the dysfunction of standardized tests themselves, and the dysfunction they create in our school environment. Recent example include, the “Pineapple” story in New York, the FCAT writing scores in Florida, and numerous cheating scandals across the country. Yet these are just the superficial problems with standardized tests. Todd Farley worked for 15 years at Pearson Education, one of the largest for profit companies in education and testing, and he said, “there aren’t scoring problems on some standardized tests—my experience suggests there are scoring problems on all of them.”
Beyond the scoring problems, the manner in which the questionable test results are used compound the problems. They have narrowed the curriculum and reduced the opportunities for students to engage in creative play and critical thinking. They have been used to punish teachers and schools, and forced educators to teach to the test rather than meet the individual needs of the children. An incredible amount of time and money is dedicated to testing rather than actual learning.
If we really want to improve the educational experience for all students, we would not add more time in school and require more testing. We would try to eliminate standardized testing and focus on empowering teachers to make time in school a rich meaningful experience for students. If politicians and administrators cannot or will not end the testing obsession, parents, students, and teachers must work together to force an end this destructive process. It pains me too much to watch my students sit in front of a computer answering questions they don’t care about and are not making them better students or better people.