Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Nation Too Tested

The Washington Post is beginning a series of articles on education testing, starting with this one, all from the viewpoint of the question of whether or not we test our children too much. The story's lead is this:
Along with painting and gluing and coloring and playing, Kisha Lee engages the youngsters in her day-care program in another activity: testing.

Three- and 4-year-olds take spelling tests of such words as "I," "me" and "the," as well as math tests, from which they learn how to fill in a bubble to mark the right answer.

Test preparation for children barely out of diapers is hardly something Lee learned while getting her education degree at the University of Maryland, she said. But it is what she says she must do -- for the kids' sake -- based on her past experience teaching in a Prince George's County elementary school.

"Kids get tested and labeled as soon as they get into kindergarten," said Lee, who runs the state-certified Alternative Preschool Solutions in Accokeek. "They have to pass a standardized test from the second they get in. I saw kindergartners who weren't used to taking a test, and they fell apart, crying, saying they couldn't do it.

"The child who can sit and answer the questions correctly is identified as talented," Lee said. "It hurts me to have to do this, but it hurts the kids if I don't."
I have to admit that I sometimes wonder if enough testing is done and other times I think too much. Some of this may be the result of so much media and school focus on testing and test results. But in the NCLB era, testing is here to stay so it behooves us to take a good long look at testing to see whether or not it is achieving the goals we want.

We must realize that a test is a snap-shot in time measurement. There are benefits to this approach and there are limitations. For example, a typical test cannot account for learning progress over time, only for the most recent material or time frame. Furthermore, the format of testing, whether it is multiple choice, short answer essay, long-format essay, etc. determines to a great extent the type of skills tested. No one style or one test can accurately measure all that is learned and the sooner that the public and politicians understand this, the better it will be for children.

But if we are a nation where are kids are over tested, then instead of whining about it, we need to address the root causes of over-testing. I tend to believe that the root causes are fear and confusion.

Fear is simple. In order to prevent our schools from failing to meet NCLB standards, teachers, administrators and even parents believe that you must routinely drill students in test taking environments, to acclimate them to the rigors of standardized testing. Rather than focusing on content, we have begun to focus on process. Over time, this will be more damaging, in my belief, to students' academic careers for there is only so much improvement you can get by teaching test taking skills or practice tests.

Confusion stems not from the actual testing, but the need for testing so many different standards. Between national standards, state standards, local curricula, tests issued by teachers in the normal course of class room learning, students and their parents are unsure what they are supposed to learn and how to apply it. Given that even teh best students are going to learn first that which is tested, having multiple criteria to meet, sometimes conflicting or at least not complementary, in nature only creates further confusion on the part of students.

Confusion is also present among the bureaucrats and politicians who advocate testing as a means of accountability. As many teachers have routinely pointed out, testing a student involves multiple inputs and the teacher is just one. If the point of the testing is to see what students have learned or not, then the format of the test needs to reflect the desire to measure that activity. If the test is designed to measure school proficiency in teaching, then testing students may not be the best course, or at least not the only course, of action to take.

Like many facets of education, I believe we, as a nation of test taking children, need to take a big step back and think long and hard about what it is all this testing is supposed to measure. Then we can ask whether not our testing regime is designed to accomplish those measurements.

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