Student testing, as it exists today, creates a world of trouble

We spend too much time preparing for tests than actually learning.

When I was teaching high school social studies, students were required to take the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) which was administered to K-12 students between 1997 and 2009.

Starting in 2015, public school students have been required to take the Smarter Balanced Assessment. This assessment for English Language Arts 9 (reading, writing, listening and research) and math is administered in grades three through eight and 10. Science is tested in grades five, eight and 11. There are also interim tests. This testing is required by both the federal and state governments.

Sometimes, though, government gets it wrong, at least from one teacher’s perspective.

Since I hadn’t helped administer these statewide tests for several years, I asked a couple of teachers I know what their thoughts were about this standardized testing. Their attitudes reflect the same viewpoint I had 13 years ago.

The tests consume teaching time and change the focus at the schools. Much of the curriculum has been adjusted to prepare for these tests. The tests themselves usually consume three half-days of the 180-day school year. Since time is finite, something has to go. Rather than spending time on course material, it is spent either preparing for or taking the test.

No school and no teacher wants to be branded for poor student performance on these tests. That’s the major problem: students are not held accountable, teachers and administrators are.

There is no incentive for students to do well. Students are neither rewarded nor punished if they do well or poorly. Parents are not held responsible, either. Although students only attend classes about 6.5 hours a day, schools and teachers are expected to be able to overcome outside influences on student attitudes and behaviors. Other factors also come into play.

At home, students are affected by parental attitudes about learning and the importance of education. Since both parents work in many American homes, they are often tired. Also, parental attitudes about the importance of getting a good education vary among families. Some value education highly while others see no point to getting much of an education. Their experiences in school were negative and they pass those attitudes on to their children.

Students are also affected by their peers. If their friends don’t value the testing, those attitudes are passed on, affecting student scores on the standardized tests.

Additionally, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction website: “Test refusals penalize schools and districts. Students who do not test are counted among the number of students who do not meet standard. This is reflected in the Accountability Index. Schools and districts that fall below a 95 percent participation rate on state tests jeopardize eligibility for any state or federal awards or recognitions.”

If parents and students opt out, there is nothing the schools can do other than cajole and encourage. The tension among teachers and administrators is palpable, according to one teacher I talked with.

Political realism has been built into the system as seen in this OSPI comment: “Meeting standard on the high school test is one (emphasis mine) of the pathways a student can use to demonstrate post-secondary career or college readiness.” If doing well on the tests was required for graduation, student attitudes about the testing would change dramatically.

Since there are parents who rebel at these standards and those parents might vote against the legislator or state elected officials who set up mandatory requirements, options have been created. Angry parents might complain to district administrators about those expectations. Angry parents vote against school levies and bond issues which provide much of the revenue for public schools. It becomes a question of politics, not what’s best for the students.

Teachers and school officials bear the brunt because they stand between the parents and the politicians. This tension doesn’t create high test scores or good public education.

What are the solutions? Find a way to create accountability for the students. Train parents to become more involved in the education of their children. Find a way for politicians to come up with good laws that reinforce the importance of learning and help preserve the family, which is really the basis for good student performance. Change the way of assessing student progress that is realistic and doable.

All of these proposed changes require cultural and political rethinking. Politicians as a group are cowards. They’re more concerned with getting re-elected than they are in doing what’s good for society. We live in a nation, though, where “We the People” are actually in charge. That’s you and me.

As anthropologist Margaret Mead noted, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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