Is there too much standardized testing?

January 5th, 2016

More than 100 standardized tests

Last fall, the Council of the Great City Schools, a national organization that represents the needs of urban public schools, released the first comprehensive study of standardized testing in the United States’ largest school districts. The research found that the average public school student takes 112 required standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation. The study noted that the majority of countries that outperform the United States on international exams only test their students three times throughout their academic careers.

How have standardized tests come to play such a large role in our schools? The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) passed by Congress in 2001 required states to test every student in reading and math each year from third through eighth grade, as well as once during high school. Because states that didn’t make adequate academic progress on the test would be penalized, states and school districts began adding additional tests to check whether students were on track for the primary annual test. New grant programs introduced by President Barack Obama required states to evaluate teachers, partly on student test scores, in order to receive grants. So states began adding even more tests in social studies, science, languages and other subjects in order to have data that could be presented for grant application purposes. A flood of marketing to school districts by standardized testing companies also contributes to the problem.

Debate over standardized tests

As Congress prepared to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015, there were vociferous debates over whether the requirement for states to test students annually should be removed entirely. The National Education Association (NEA), the largest teacher organization in the country, criticized No Child Left Behind for shifting the focus “away from student learning and opportunity [and] towards testing, labeling, and punishing schools — with no significant closure of achievement gaps or opportunity gaps.” The advocacy organization Network for Public Education (NPE) stated that the testing required by NCLB has led to the closure of “thousands of predominantly poor and minority neighborhood schools — the anchors of communities.” A small but growing number of mostly affluent parents are having their children boycott federally required tests. These parents say the frequent tests put too much pressure on students who already face heavy homework loads.

However, the Education Trust, a nonprofit that promotes high academic achievement for all students at all levels, opposes removing annual testing requirements. Katy Haycock, president of the organization, said that doing so “would be a devastating step backward, for it is very hard to make sure our education system is serving every child well when we don’t have reliable, comparable achievement data on every child every year.” Supporters of the testing such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR) believe the data is needed in order to advocate for equitable resources for low-income students, students of color, students learning English as a second language and students with disabilities.

Seattle public school principal Justin Baeder stated in a 2011 blog post why he believes we still need the information standardized testing provides, despite the shortcomings in how it’s been used. “We owe it to our students to pay attention to how they’re doing, and to change what we’re doing when it’s not working,” he wrote.

A blog post written in 2015 by Four Colorado Teachers of the Year takes a different perspective, saying, “Tests that only measure the information students retain . . . are too limited. We need to determine beyond standardized tests what skills students have acquired and mastered.” They also point out that many standardized test results aren’t even available to teachers until the next academic year, making it impossible for them to adjust approaches with particular students who are struggling.

What will change

In December 2015, Congress passed and President Obama signed a new version of the federal education law named the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, replacing NCLB). While in many ways the new law is similar in its approach to its predecessor, the main difference is that it moves accountability for performance from the federal government to the states. Many education reformers are heralding the fact that the new law ends requirements for “Adequate Yearly Progress” shown through standardized test scores, which often ended up penalizing schools. While NCLB focused heavily on “core academic subjects,” ESSA emphasizes a “well-rounded education.” Many hope this means subjects such as social studies, science, and the arts are less likely to be underfunded. The legislation also allocates $250 million for early childhood education grants.

Professors Mary Battenfeld and Felicity Crawford of Wheelock College believe that a major shortcoming of ESSA is that it “emphasizes K-12 accountability over root causes of educational inequality. And the new law flies against history’s lesson that federal oversight is a good thing for vulnerable children.” Battenfeld and Crawford believe this lack of attention to inequality means that schools who serve students of color, impoverished students, and those with special needs will continue to be penalized at higher rates.

How our faith guides us

Scripture speaks often about the blessing that children are and about our responsibility to guide and direct them. Yet because children have little power in our society, too often we ignore their presence and their needs. As Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral has written, “We are guilty of many faults and errors, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many things we need can wait. The child cannot.”

In any discussion by people of faith about how our educational system can fully serve all children, it must be noted that in 2013, for the first time, low-income children became the majority in our nation’s public schools. It’s difficult to imagine significant educational progress being made without also making major efforts to reduce poverty. Any assessments and reforms within our educational system must be measured not just by how they affect middle class or affluent children, but also by how they affect our most vulnerable children. As budgets are hashed out within the halls of government, the voices of people of faith are needed so that those who have the least aren’t asked to bear the greatest burden.

Knowing how prone we are to ignore those with little power or standing, God reminded the Hebrew people over and over that they were to attend to the needs of widows, orphans, and immigrants. Jesus continued this emphasis when he placed a young child in the midst of the disciples and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9:36-37). Surely such a welcome means embracing all children for who they are and for what they need so that they may be educated and nurtured into reaching their full, God-given potential.

As composer Pablo Casals once said of what we teach children, “When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel.” We must all work, he concludes, “to make the world worthy of its children.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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