The Disservice of Testing

The months of April and May in a public school calendar have dates blocked out for standardized testing. Many third through eighth grade students, teachers, and parents dread this time of year with great cause. Over twenty years ago when I began my education career, this was not the case. Yes, we administered standardized tests, but it was not the anxiety provoking event of today.

The concept of having an end of the course exam is not a terrible idea as we need to know if students learned the required curriculum for a grade level. However, it just produces quantitative data on mastery of a set of standards but not a true picture of student learning. To me learning has occurred when a student’s knowledge in an area has grown and can be applied in other contexts. Some students come to the first day of school with the ability to pass the exam, so how does a standardized test show learning for these students? Other students start the first day of school two years behind grade level but make a year and half of growth in year which is not reflected in a standardized test. A multiple-choice test given on one school day does not show the complete picture of a learner.

Due to the financial ramifications of not achieving passing scores on the tests, teachers are resorting to teaching “testing strategies” or using commercial test-prep materials for instruction. More and more I see teachers who have lost confidence in best practices for instruction due to the fear of low test scores. As I walk the halls of schools, time and again I observe students who are reading “test passages” and not authentic literature. It scares me there is a whole generation of students who are being indoctrinated to think reading is about answering multiple-choice questions and documenting your answer choices by following a set of steps derived by your teacher (which these steps change year-to-year as the teacher changes).

Ted Dintersmith, in a 2019 interview, stated, “…in my venture career, that the academic superstars generally didn’t do that well in a world of innovation. Isn’t that interesting? That the very best in our education system weren’t necessarily going to be the very best in a world of innovation? In my talks, I frame it this way. I say, ‘If I visit your school, I’d be willing to bet that if a kid there is excellent at memorizing material, replicating low-level procedures, and following instructions, that kid will be on your honor roll.’ Those low-level, narrow skills are exactly what machine intelligence does instantly and cheaply. If what we want kids to get good at is right in the crosshairs of machine intelligence, and machine intelligence is accelerating its capability, how does this play out?”

This machine intelligence is a product the current state of standardized testing. We have to reinstate teacher confidence in instructional best practices utilizing authentic literature and problem solving with real-world examples. Students’ passion and curiosity for learning must be cultivated in schools. Today we cannot predict what the jobs for the class of 2031 (current kindergarten students) will be, but schools can prepare them by teaching critical thinking and analytical skills which foster innovation and collaboration. There will be a lot of problems for future generations to solve, so let’s start building those skill sets from a young age.

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