OPINION: Excessive testing undermines learning

classroom stock

Anchorage’s public school administrators are preoccupied with data-driven curriculum. The theory that test results help districts select curriculum and shape instruction is a sound one. Most parents, students and educators support some form of standardized testing. Parents naturally want to know how their child measures up against age-equivalent peers. Students likewise want to know their test scores to set goals and track academic growth. Teachers need test data to place students and to individualize instruction. But how much data is required to make such determinations? How much is too much?

Our district has embraced the philosophy that more data is better. Under previous leadership, ASD launched a data-mining frenzy to a level of absurdity. Our district tests so much that my middle school English students lose approximately 11-15 instructional class sessions per year. No longer is it the class clown who disrupts learning. Now, it’s excessive testing.

So, what does a typical testing day look like in middle school? At middle school, students take the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. At my school, the math portion of MAP is administered in math classes, the reading portion in language arts classes. That test requires three full class sessions to complete, with a fourth day provided as needed. Add in a make-up day for students who were absent or need additional time, and the MAP test spans a full school week. Multiply that number by three, because the MAP test is administered three times per year — fall, winter, and spring — for a total of three weeks of disruption caused by a single test.

The state’s standardized System of Academic Readiness (STAR) test, given each spring, spans two half-days, plus one make-up day. Erring on the conservative side and not counting extended time and make-up days, MAP and STAR require 11 testing days that impact math and English classes.

But there’s more. The iReady test is also administered three times per year in seventh- and eighth-grade math classes. Each testing session requires two class periods plus a period for make-ups. This newly adopted  math curriculum, published by the iReady company, makes testing an integral part of its program. Add iReady to MAP and STAR tests, and math teachers and their students lose a total of 17 instructional days per year.

World languages and English language learner departments administer additional tests. Some eighth-graders take a standardized science test. All tests combined deny certain ASD middle-schoolers 23 or more classroom learning sessions.

Unfortunately, testing disruptions are not limited to classrooms. Testing impacts an entire school. On test days, teachers not testing might alter their lessons to conserve bandwidth needed to test. Backup computers are unavailable for instruction because testing requires all the extra computers. In some buildings, counselors and teacher aides assist with small group and one-on-one test administration. This means students might not be able to see a counselor on testing days. It also means learning disabled students who, by federal law, are entitled to individual assistance in their classrooms, might not receive their regular learning accommodations for up to a week at a time. School libraries often get used for small group and make-up testing, closing the library to the student body for partial or entire days at a time. Because of technology limitations, testing might be staggered by grade level, which extends building disruptions for weeks.

Proponents claim test-taking prepares students for college and careers, that it teaches students the critical skill of how to take a test. Such arguments are misguided. Many state colleges and universities never have required entrance exams for admission. Now, prestigious private institutions have abandoned the SAT and ACT exams in favor of more accurate measures such as interviews, writing samples, and overall academic performance.

Similarly, employers seldom require exams for employment. Just the opposite. The workforce is so diminished, employers offer bonuses for those willing to work. Most employers seek workers who are professional, reliable, and intelligent. They value experience, work ethic and a clean search on social media, but not a score on an exam.

At some point, the law of diminishing return applies to testing. With expanded testing, student anxiety increases, while student engagement decreases. The more we test, the less time students have to learn. Our school district expends so much time quantifying what our students know that insufficient time remains to teach them what they don’t know. In the past decade, ASD’s data-driven mania has driven learning outcomes off course and, quite possibly, undermined student achievement.

With both budget deficits and learning deficits looming, ASD needs to eliminate unnecessary testing. Parents and teachers can still determine a student’s strengths and weaknesses with a fraction of the data currently collected. By paring down the number, the length, and the frequency of tests, ASD could save money. They also could improve test scores by recovering many of the 11-plus language arts instructional days and the 17-plus math days presently lost to testing.

Thomas Pease has taught in the Anchorage School District for 28 years and has been nationally board certified since 2003.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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