The Trouble with Testing

by Mike Anderson on
two students taking a test

When I first began my teaching career in the early 1990's, it felt like an exciting time to be in education. There was incredible momentum building for rich, multi-layered, developmentally appropriate teaching. The reading and writing workshop approach to literacy was based on the belief that children were motivated to read and had stories to tell. The teacher's role was to guide children's literacy learning by giving them thoughtful and meaningful choices. In the world of mathematics education, there was a huge emphasis on using math manipulatives and having children learn multiple strategies for solving problems. Inquiry-based science and project-based social studies units made abstract content more meaningful and real for young learners.

Blending these exciting teaching and learning strategies led to incredible integrated, cross-discipline projects that were fun, rigorous, and that helped children learn how to work together effectively. For example, a fifth grade colleague of mine put together a unit about Westward Expansion where students read books and websites, wrote in multiple genres (poetry, historical fiction, letters, etc.), did independent research projects on a topic of their choice, and recreated the Lewis and Clark adventure on the school playground for all of the school to visit (complete with guided tours). Students were highly engaged in this work, learned an incredible amount of history, and also practiced skills such as cooperation, creativity, and persistence.

With great sadness, I have seen incredible high-level and rigorous work such as this fall by the wayside in schools all across the country over the past decade. As I travel to schools in Virginia, Montana, Georgia, Massachusetts, California, and many other states, I hear a similar lament over and over again: "I used to do such great projects with my students: cooking, research projects, historical field trips, plays . . . I can't do any of that any more. I have to stick to my district's pacing guides, and we have to get ready for The Tests."

Over the past decade, standardized testing has assumed an overly prominent role in public schools across the country. No Child Left Behind was an attempt to help all children receive an adequate education, but its overreliance on testing as a method for assessing student learning has in fact, lowered academic standards in significant ways.

One big problem with testing is that the tests themselves are limiting. Some skills can be assessed using paper-pencil tests, but many cannot. Computation, grammar, formulaic writing, and basic reading comprehension are all examples of testable skills, and they form the bulk of typical standardized tests. There are many other skills that are much harder to test, and arguably, much more important for children to develop. Creativity, empathy, perseverance, and self-motivation are just a few that are being neglected.

In a recent blog article for The Harvard Business Review, Adam Richardson suggests that schools spend more time focusing on what he calls "The Four C's" of learning: Creativity, Complexity, Curiosity, and Collaboration. He argues that these are skills that students will need in the marketplace, and that they are missing out on developing them because of an overemphasis on testing in schools. I couldn't agree more. The skills involved in "The Four C's" are just what we seem to be losing as we move away from project-based, hands-on, developmentally appropriate curricula.

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An excellent post with timely content. Sadly, as the demands for testing increases, so does the outcry for more worksheets. It is our responsibility, as educators, to ensure that we are still engaging our students in project / problem-based learning. With the Common Core we are currently unsure of what the future testing situation will entail. This is a perfect opportunity for grade level teams to work together to create engaging projects for their students that meet the state and national standards. It is my hope that the current rote and disengaging climate of education will engage educators in authentic collaboration to meet the needs of their students.

Thanks, Mike, for your post and for the link to the HBR post by Adam Richardson. It seems NCLB is doing just what an NPR story this morning (Race Against the Machine) talked about: equipping our kids for the low-skill jobs that computers can't do. The NPR story noted that computers/technology are (surprisingly) replacing many of the middle-class type jobs nowadays. So, when you combine these technological advances with the limitations of NCLB for public schools . . . it means we're training the majority of our kids for low-skill jobs instead of training them to be innovators and high-skilled workers. Not to mention NCLB doesn't help them become modern citizens . . . hopefully, schools will start to better balance the need to teach and assess for basic skills with the need to start preparing our future generations for the many challenges ahead. Thanks again, Jim

Here, here, Mike!  Moving from high-stakes testing Virginia to a wonderful international school in Tashkent, Uzbekistan that focuses the type of inquiry-based transdisciplinary learning that you described, has been the refreshing change that I needed to rekindle my enthusiasm for teaching.  Sure, we still have a year's worth of content to teach but we don't have to rush and get it all done by April so they kids can take the test.  We actually have the full school year to do it and we can teach the content in creative and engaging ways.  The learning seems to be so much more driven by student interest and inquiry and the discussions seem deeper and more fruitful.  I really hope that the pendulum of academic "best practices" will once again swing away from standardized testing to more creative ways of teaching, thinking and learning.

Oh Mike, how I do agree with you.  My teachers are so swamped with benchmark assessments, they don't have time to teach, much less, time to enrich!  I have no angst about being held accountable for student learning.  I vastly disagree with the way we are to go about measuring that learning.

If we were truly to measure adequate yearly progress, we would give an assessment at the beginning of the year and then a similar assessment at the end.  This would measure a year's growth for a student.  Instead of having to meet a particular benchmark for second language learners of students with disabilities, let's show growth for those students.

Not only are we taking the joy out of learning; we are taking the joy out of teaching.  My teachers are overwhelmed to the point that word no longer has meaning.  It's just a way of life.  We're trying to incorporate authentic assessments with students as much as possible and then try to teach them how to translate their knowledge into a multiple choice format.

Oh, I could go on for days...

Thanks, Mike, for putting this out there.

Thanks for the comments, everyone! I'm not surprised that there's some resonance out there for this topic. Everywhere I go in the U.S., I hear a similar story . . . too much time spent on testing and not enough time for so many things that are so much more important for children in the long run!

The institution of standardized testing in Massachusetts has completely changed the way students are taught.  We now have 'lowest-common-denominator' classrooms.  Classrooms where all of the teaching is geared towards having the least amount of students fail rather than classrooms where everyone is brought to their greatest potential.  This 'may' help the very lowest performers but greatly hurts the remaining students through excessive repetition, uninteresting and unimaginative lessons, and failing to create real challenges for higher level learners.