It's a ritual our students are too familiar with: Sharpening their No. 2 pencils and filling in the bubbles on standardized tests.
The frequency of the tests and the time taken away from classroom instruction to prepare for them has been the source of grumbling from students, teachers, administrators and parents alike. In recent days, questions over the effectiveness of standardized testing have gained traction.
A report from the Council of Great City Schools said public school students will take an average of 112 mandatory standardized exams from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, which amounts to about 2.3 percent of classroom time. President Barack Obama, who had been a longtime advocate for standardized testing, called for capping testing at 2 percent of classroom time and said federal education officials would work with states, schools and teachers to "make sure that we're not obsessing about testing." Just last week, math scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress fell for the first time in 25 years, while reading scores either flat-lined or dropped.
"There's never been any definitive evidence of standardized testing improving instruction — or really — knowledge," said Brett Joyce, superintendent of Triton Public Schools.
"Nobody's denying that there should be some testing," said Joyce who earned his master's degree in educational psychology at the University of Iowa where the ACT test was developed at the Belin-Blank Center for Education. "The real interesting part for me is that we're finally understanding that formative testing, not standardized testing, is where it's at. Formative testing allows students to see their growth individually."
Formative assessment typically provides qualitative feedback, rather than scores, for both students and teachers that focuses on the details of content and performances. As well intended as a standardized testing is, it often discourages children who don't score well on an exam.
Last week, Sen. Chuck Wiger, a DFLer from Maplewood who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, conducted a hearing on reducing state-required standardized testing, which he called a top priority for next year. Annette Walen, a fourth-grade teacher from Osseo, related the experience of a student who struggled on the standardized tests and was given extra math and reading instruction.
"Her hard work did pay off, sort of," Walen told the committee. "Her test scores did increase a lot, and we celebrated that growth."
Still, the girl fell short the state's proficiency standards. Later in the school year, Walen said, the girl wrote in an essay, "I wish I wasn't so dumb."
That example underscores the shortcomings of standardized testing.
"How sad and tragic is it that that kid thinks she's dumb," Joyce said. "An assessment that turns any kid off from an ability to open her mind and learn. That's the real tragedy."
Recalling his training at the University of Iowa, Joyce said his professors told him the ACT, which is designed to predict success for entering college freshmen, is "very, very limited test." In fact, "all tests are inherently weak. It's hard to paper and pencil human ability. It just is. In trying to do that, I think we've mucked up more than we've helped."
Following last week's testimony from Educator Policy Innovation Center representatives, who outlined the report "Testing Better: How to Improve Minnesota's Use of Assessments in Education," which called for fewer, but more effective, standardized tests, Wiger promised more hearings on the issue. So the momentum is mounting.
"The over-testing is a pendulum thing," Joyce said. "It swings one way, and now, we're looking back and seeing that there's no evidence that improves education or the outcome. So then we ask 'Why are we doing it?'"
Why indeed. The evidence is clear that frequent testing is counterproductive.
Let's give our students more time for learning and less time filling in bubbles on a test form.