“Education myth: American students are over-tested,” says the title in the Hechinger Report on 7 December 2015. That story covers the frustration of OECD’s education chief Andreas Schleicher after he attended recent education summit held at the White House. Schleicher concluded that the United States is not a country of heavy testing and that standardized testing is not the bottleneck for improvement.
Wait a minute. So, standardized testing is not an issue in the U.S. education? My experience based on school visits and many discussions with parents and teachers around the U.S. suggest quite the opposite. It is clear to me that one of the main obstacles in focusing more on real learning, giving more room to music and arts in American schools, building learning in schools around curiosity, creativity and exploration of interesting issues, is standardized testing.
I have been in school districts where principals told me that they spend up to one third of annual instructional time to testing and related activities. I have seen tens of schools and hundreds of teachers who tell how there is no more recess or physical education or music in their schools because time is needed to do well in obligatory tests. And it is not just tests themselves but everything that comes with high-stakes nature of them: fear of failure, pressure of performance, and time spend in and out of school on preparing for these tests. And perhaps most importantly, I don’t know any other OECD country where cheating and corruption are so common in all levels of the school system than it is in the U.S., only because dominance of standardized tests.
Schleicher writes in his blog that “over the years I have learned to trust the reports of students on what actually happens in the classroom more than the claims of many experts.” But how can a teenager tell the difference between standardized test and other kind of classroom assessments that are rarely standardized? If 15-year-old students in Finland tell that they take standardized tests three to five times a year they clearly don’t know what standardized tests are. And how could they when they have never seen one.
I tend to trust more on quantitative research and data from experts than surveys that reflect often opinions more than actual facts. In a recent (October 2015) study by the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) researchers examined the amount of standardized testing in American urban schools. Their research found that “students in the 66 districts were required to take an average of 112.3 tests between pre-K and grade 12.” It is worth of note that this number does not include optional tests, diagnostic tests for students with disabilities or English learners, school-developed or required tests, or teacher designed or developed tests. According to this same study the average student in these districts will typically take about eight standardized tests per year, e.g., two NCLB tests (reading and math), and three formative exams in two subjects per year. This is heavy testing to me. It is about eight times more than in Finland.
Andreas Schleicher is right when he writes that “it is actually very hard to find comparative data on the prevalence of testing in OECD countries”. But he is wrong in hoping that students would be a more reliable source of answers than experts. When 20 per cent of students in the state of New York opted out mandated standardized state tests earlier this year, it was a clear sign that both students and parents think that their schools are over-tested.
In the end, what Schleicher’s simple international comparisons ignore is that toxic and often misused accountability systems that link data from standardized tests to teachers, schools, districts and, through PISA, to entire education systems. GSCS’s study confirmed that “there is no correlation between the amount of mandated testing time and the reading and math scores in grades four and eight on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)”. Therefore, rather than suggesting that there is still room for more standardized testing in the U.S. it would benefit more to advice authorities and politicians to invest that money to improve the existing tests. Standardized testing is a growing industry globally and those with most interests in having even more testing in schools are corporations that have direct economic interest to test our children over and over again.
Posted also on Diane Ravitch Blog on 8 Dec 2015