Desks arranged in line formation. Students seated in alphabetical order. Pencil and paper at the ready on your desk.
These are components of education that students all over the world know well when it comes to test time. The frequency of these tests may change, however, from district to district and school to school. Public schools, for instance, are required to administer state standardized tests, including the Standards Based Assessment (SBA), End of Course (EOC) and Discovery Education Testing (DEA), as well as tests for Advanced Placement (AP) classes. It’s fair to say that these tests are often unpopular with both teachers and students, as they seemingly take place throughout the year. Whether there is too much testing, too much teaching to the test or too little critical thinking being taught in schools as a result, is a matter of opinion.
Capital High School student Jessica Gutierrez rattled off a string of testing acronyms as she said, “There is too much testing in school. We take tests and quizzes, but we also take the SBAs, ACTs, SATs, DEAs, STAR tests and AR [Accelerated Reading] reading tests.” She is one who believes that the focus in school now is based on teaching test-taking skills instead of actually teaching the material. She feels that students can’t think freely because they are so focused on getting the “right” answer on tests. Fellow Capital High School student Juan Cordova said that in order to take these exams, schedule changes occur that “interfere with my education.”
Public-school educator Immaculada Martin-Hernandez said there is a lot of critical thinking going on in classrooms — but that doesn’t always reflect what is on the tests. “Too much testing makes students lose interest since they take many of them,” she said. She said she doesn’t always understand the differences between all the tests being administered, but, “They all do the same thing.” When asked what might be done to reduce the stress levels some students experience with exams, she suggested finding a way to concentrate the material into one exam. And, she said, “We need to show our students how to study for exams. With all the tests they have now, I don’t think they know how.”
Private schools, while not required to administer all the state-mandated tests, have their own form of standardized testing, but often these tests are only given to students who have elected to take on a more rigorous course load. At Desert Academy, for instance, students enrolled in the school’s International Baccalaureate degree classes must take standardized exams tailored to each individual course. These tests are then sent to other IB schools worldwide, where they are graded by outside educators and administrators.
According to Rod Mehling, Desert Academy’s dean of school, these types of tests offer teachers more freedom to tie the curriculum to the test: “The exams are done in such a way that students select major essay questions to write, and they obviously make their selections based on the material that their teachers have incorporated into the curriculum.” Mehling said these tests effectively foster critical-thinking skills because they are mainly comprised of essay questions and avoid simple multiple-choice questions.
At Santa Fe Prep, on the other hand, the only tests you might consider “standardized” are the Advanced Placement tests. The students take a survey of student engagement to compare themselves to students in about 100 other participating schools in terms of finding the best measures to gauge academic achievement. This four-page survey gives students a sense of how they are learning, how their teachers help them learn and whether they feel they are being taught to memorize for upcoming tests. Said Prep Headmaster Jim Leonard, “One of the reasons I think [the survey] is an important component of academic testing is that it measures those factors that are most likely to produce active engagement in school life: How many times in the last month have we talked with a student about academics outside class? How many papers have you written more than five pages?”
In assessing whether students are tested too much, NPR education reporter Cory Turner told Generation Next via email that “we test students a lot more than most other countries … but those tests have far lower stakes in the U.S. than elsewhere.”
As far as the stress level associated with testing, he recommends putting the issue into international context. In other parts of the world, one test may have a much higher stake in determining a student’s future. But Turner does believe that in the past, most tests did not emphasize critical thinking skills, but he says that may change as Common Core standards continue to come into play in many states.
Incidentally, if you Google Turner’s work for NPR, you will notice he recently took a standardized test himself to see how he would fare — and that he thinks two of the most stressful words in the world are standardized test.