According to the Education Commission of the States, "the majority of states require 180 days of student instruction" in a school year. And a growing number of educators, administrators and other professionals are beginning to actively question how many of those days students should spend preparing for and taking high-stakes or standardized tests. The questions they are asking include:
- What are the benefits of these tests?
- Are they effective tools for measuring success?
- How much money does it cost to administer these tests?
- Could the money be used better elsewhere?
Although there are no easy answers, a few recent studies shed new light on this issue.
What Are the Assumed Benefits?
Advocates of standardized testing are concerned about two specific issues: teacher and school accountability and student progress. Policymakers and others who control the purse strings of district budgets feel an obligation to allocate the public's tax dollars wisely. They believe that one way to hold educators and school systems accountable is through administering standardized tests, which claim to determine whether or not students in each school have made adequate yearly progress. Policymakers, as well as the public, want statistical proof that teachers are doing their jobs and students are succeeding academically. They want their money's worth.
In addition to accountability, some educators believe that standardized tests provide vital information for the classroom teacher. Dr. Gail Gross, a family and child development expert, wrote that "standardized testing gives the teacher important diagnostic information about what each child is learning in relation to what he has been taught. Only in this way can the teacher know if the student needs intervention and remediation; if the curriculum matches the course requirements; or if the teaching methods needed are in some way lacking and require adjustment."
Are These Tests Effective?
Good educators understand the value of accurate assessments. They routinely and systematically check to make sure students are "getting it." They want to know how to prepare for those students who don't understand a concept as well as for students who are excelling and ready for more advanced material. They use data from assessment and observations to drive instruction and keep students of all ability levels engaged and active. Many of these teachers see some value in standardized tests. But for the most part, classroom educators believe that the time spent to prepare and administer these tests does not serve them or their students well.
When evaluating the benefit of each type of assessment, teachers take many factors into consideration, including learning styles, classroom behavior patterns, student response to test-taking and other social/emotional issues that students may be facing. The creators of standardized tests may write tests that are valid and reliable in a standard world; however, classroom teachers know that some of their students are brilliant but cannot handle the stress or pressure of timed tests. Students who learn differently, because of a cognitive disability or a social/emotional issue, may have solid content knowledge, but completing a bubble test or working a laptop may not accurately reflect their true abilities. Although districts have some latitude when making accommodations for students with disabilities or English Language Learners, they do not have carte blanche to offer conditions that will elicit the best results from all students.
Are these tests effective? Teachers in all areas of education agree that the information provided to policymakers by these tests does not provide a true picture of student success. Students may not perform well under stress. They may not be good test-takers. They may have limited language proficiency. Or they may have disabilities, identified or not, that prevent them from doing as well as other students. Given these conditions, results from these tests cannot give a true picture of how well teachers are doing their job in the classroom.
Is This Money and Time Well-Spent?
According to a study conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the annual cost to administer standardized tests to students in the Eastern and Midwestern states averaged between $600 and $700 per student. This estimate included the cost of the test itself, the hours required to administer the test (at the school and district levels), and the hourly cost of instructional time lost in dollars budgeted per student.
Another study involving 66 urban school districts was done by the Council of the Great City Schools. They found that eighth-graders spent more than four school days taking tests, some of which were redundant. In addition, some of the tests were used for purposes other than tracking student progress, such as school and teacher evaluations.
The AFT recognizes that some of the high-stakes tests serve a useful purpose. They believe, however, that "cutting testing time and costs in half would yield significant gains both to the instructional day and to the budget."
What Can Administrators Do?
Principal and district administrators have a responsibility to follow mandates created by state and federal policy makers. These mandates currently include high-stakes testing. The data collected from these assessments must be provided to the appropriate governing body.
But educational leaders at the school and district levels also have a responsibility to provide an environment in which all students have opportunities to succeed. Using requests and suggestions of teachers and other staff members, principals can create a positive place, provide appropriate incentives and find time and space for additional learning opportunities. Principals may also give teachers latitude to make adjustments to instruction that will serve to both improve test scores and provide a well-rounded education.
Many experienced educators are interested in pursuing positions of educational leadership and advocating for change in the testing structure and testing frequency. By earning an online master's degree in education, these teachers can prepare to assume leadership roles and lobby for change. During the course of study, graduate students analyze and discuss the responsibilities of the principal to local authorities and the community. They learn how to be instructional leaders as well as advocates for diverse students and English Language Learners. Graduates of the program can gain the skills to evaluate the current system of standardized testing and take steps to control its impact on their schools and students.
Learn more about LSU Shreveport's Master of Education in Educational Leadership Online.
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