How Standardized, High-Stakes Testing Affects Teaching
Standardized testing and high-stakes testing are apparently here to stay. Ever since the passage of No Child Left Behind, students and teachers are being held to strict performance outcomes that aim to produce the same results in every school district of the country. The Pros and Cons of Standardized Testing-The Impact on Our Children begs for more meaningful conversation.
The Obama administration’s reforms to No Child Left Behind promised an end to excessive testing but did not deliver it.
In the decades since education reform became a rallying cry for every administration since the 1980s, teachers and schools have had time to judge the effects of all this testing.
Most teachers agree that the negative effects outweigh the positive ones.
Negative Effects of Standardized Tests
If you took a survey of teachers, most of them would come up with this list as the main drawbacks of teaching to the test.
Most teachers have found that preparing for the tests takes a big bite out of their lesson plans. The tests themselves require long hours of school time. Many of them take all day to take. Students who are sitting and taking tests for two days or more are missing valuable classroom time.
They Stifle Creativity
This is a concern that many teachers raise. They say that having to teach to a single, standardized test means having to abandon their own creative lesson plans. The focus on learning only the test material means that teachers can’t foster creativity in their students or spend time working out problems. They work like automatons or computers whose only job is to deliver information.
The focus on testing also means that schools no longer emphasize programs like music, art and physical education. These subjects are not on any of the tests, and many schools don’t have the time or resources to teach them.
They Narrow the Curriculum
One outcome of the focus on high-stakes testing is a narrow curriculum. As schools drop classes that aren’t on the test, their curricula has become extremely narrow. Students no longer have the opportunity to explore different areas of interest. Often, these dropped classes are the very ones that add joy and interest to a student’s day.
Writing in the NEA Today, Tim Walker pointed out that, “Across the nation, the testing obsession has nudged aside visual arts, music, physical education, social studies and science, not to mention world languages, financial literacy and that old standby, penmanship.
Our schools, once vigorous and dynamic centers for learning, have been reduced to mere test prep factories, where teachers and students act out a script written by someone who has never visited their classroom and where ‘achievement’ means nothing more than scoring well on a bubble test.”
They Lead to Cheating and Dishonesty
Standardized tests place huge pressure on teachers and students. High-stakes testing can determine whether a student graduates, goes to college, gets accepted into a trade school or moves up to the next grade. It can even determine whether the student gets a driver’s license in some states.
The pressure is equally intense on teachers. Test outcomes can determine their pay rate, promotions and job security.
It’s not surprising that this would lead to widespread cheating. A 2017 survey found that 64% of high school students admitted that they had cheated on at least one test. Recent scandals in Atlanta and Philadelphia public schools highlight a problem that is unlikely to go away.
Students in low-income schools are at huge disadvantage when taking these tests. According to FairTest, a group that advocates the elimination of standardized testing, disproportionate numbers of African American, Latino and Native American students fail these tests.
Many of these students end up dropping out of high school. The organization also says that an obsession with the school’s test scores can lead to schools dismissing or otherwise mistreating students who they think will bring the average score down.
They Primarily Benefit Testing Companies
Testing is a billion-dollar industry. For-profit companies that write, sell and score the tests are the biggest beneficiaries of the testing system. Three companies write 96% of the tests used in schools all over the country.
They are Harcourt Educational Measurement, McGraw-Hill and Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company). Pearson Education does most of the test scoring.
These companies make additional millions selling training packages, textbooks and test-taking supplies to school systems. They also make money providing tutoring to students who need extra help preparing for the tests. Connections Academy, a leading provider of this tutoring, is owned by Pearson Education.
One teacher wrote eloquently about how these negative effects accumulate to make teaching a burdensome job.
Writing on the ThoughtCo blog, teacher Derrick Meador says that he has shifted back and forth on whether he should “teach to the test” or conduct his classroom in the way he thinks is best. He finally decided that not teaching the test material would be a disservice to his students.
“Since I made that philosophical shift,” Meador writes, “My students perform significantly better when compared to my students before I shifted my focus to teaching towards the test. In fact, over the last several years, I have had a near perfect proficiency rate for all my students. While I am proud of this fact, it is also extremely disheartening because it has come at a cost.
“This has created a continuous internal battle. I no longer feel like my classes are fun and creative. I do not feel as if I can take the time to explore the teachable moments that I would have jumped on a few years ago.
Time is at a premium, and nearly everything I do is with the one singular goal of preparing my students for testing. The focus of my instruction has been narrowed to the point that I feel as if I am trapped.”
Are There Any Positives to Standardized Testing?
There are a lot of problems with these tests. Do they have any benefits?
They Allow Teachers to Determine a Student’s Weaknesses
Some education reformers say that the tests can help pinpoint a student’s weaknesses. If a student consistently fails one portion of the test, the teacher can intervene with a focus on that subject.
They Teach Students How to Take Tests
Standardized tests are a major part of our life. Once they graduate from high school or college, students are facing a world where these tests are the norm. They’ll have to take these tests to get a driver’s license, to apply for certain jobs and to acquire professional licenses. Learning how to study for a test and take it is a useful life skill.
They Provide Accountability
Test scores provide an objective way for parents and administrators to evaluate a school’s performance. Schools must make their test results available to the public. Parents who want to learn about a certain school can use these results as a guide.
The Future of Standardized Tests
The focus on testing is one of the reasons that teachers are leaving the field. The stress, pressure and lack of creativity that the tests impose are driving many good teachers away.
FairTest and United OptOut are two leading organizations that push for changing or eliminating high-stakes tests. Testing has had a grip on our schools for decades. It may take some time to get rid of it.
Has High Stakes Testing Taken It’s Toll on You?
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