A Change of Heart

Until this year, I haven’t ever gotten too worked up over testing. I viewed it as a necessary evil, but not that terribly inconvenient. I hear horrifying statistics like the fact that “students spen[d] from 60 to more than 110 hours per year directly engaged in test preparation activities” or that students spend up to 50 hours per year taking the actual tests (1). I always comfort myself by thinking But at least I’m not like that. But I’m a part of a system that is.

Usually I do a week of going over the test, a week of administering the tests, and that’s about it. (Of course, I teach the standards assessed by the test all year, but I don’t do explicit “test review” until about a week before.)

Now, all of the tests that I’d previously administered were the former EOCT and all tests were paper/pencil. This year, however, marks the first time that I’ve been exposed to the Milestones test – which are all online except for maybe a few students who get to take the paper/pencil test (depending on your school and specific situation).

My verdict:

It has been a colossal waste of time, money, and intelligence – not to mention somewhat dysfunctional. Students using computers have had to deal with the following:

  • Computers not being able to log onto the system
  • Computers disconnecting from the testing platform in the middle of the test
  • Laptop batteries dying and then having to search for a place to plug it in
  • Test ID number issues

And then there are the inevitable delays that come with testing. I’ve had students who haven’t gotten the full amount of time (like 20 minutes less time than they are required to have) because their test is at the end of the day and by law, we can’t keep students at school after the bell rings.

What’s Everyone Else Doing? Probably not a whole lot.

Meanwhile, back in the classroom, students are either waiting for their next test or they are returning from a previous test. Some students are without teachers (who are proctoring, or absent and without a substitute) and little to no learning is taking place within the classroom.

Tests occur throughout the entire week, so students are constantly having to leave in the middle of “class” to take a test, while other students are trickling back in from a test that they have completed. Any time I have tried to begin a “lesson,” kids have to leave for a test or they return from a test that ran late. Sometimes I even have students from other classes showing up saying their teacher isn’t there.

What’s the Problem?

This isn’t because our testing schedule is poorly constructed (in fact, it’s actually quite organized thanks to our very thorough testing coordinator) – it’s because computer tests that take over 3 hours each are extremely difficult to administer without glitches, and the tests are too long.

My class, a ninth grade literature and composition class, comprises two 70-minute sessions (multiple choice and short answer) and one 90-minute session (extended, essay response). This test can be administered in either two days or three days, depending on the district, but everyone in the district has to be on the same schedule (which is difficult if some schools are on 7-period days and others are on block schedules).

To coordinate testing in a way that leaves enough time for students to complete these tests is practically impossible – and that’s if things run smoothly. No one can predict which computers are going to have issues or which network connection is going to fail or whose student ID isn’t going to respond.

So What Happens?

Based on what I’ve read from teachers in other counties (as published in the AJC) and based on countless conversations with teachers from all over the metro Atlanta area, I have concluded these occurrences are not simply relegated to Cross Keys High School or DeKalb County Schools. They are quite ubiquitous everywhere Milestones is present (and, of course, many teachers feel that speaking up is either going to be meaningless or result in some form of negative attention for themselves).

  • Some students get less time than others (especially in overcrowded schools that have to fit more kids on fewer devices). *These schools are already at a disadvantage because they usually don’t have enough devices throughout the year for students to use, so the students are less familiar with keyboarding skills than their wealthier, not-so-overcrowded counterparts.
  • Some students end the test prematurely because the final bell rings and they can’t stay late to finish.
  • Some students experience distractions worse than others, so when their computer freezes up in the middle of the essay and they have to switch computers, they lose their train of thought and finish poorly.
  • Some students who weren’t able to finish their test or who had other testing abnormalities that weren’t able to be resolved may have their test scores nullified — which is frustrating, disheartening, and unfair.

This actually disrupts learning and inhibits the ability of learning to take place – the opposite of what the test claims to achieve.

What Can Be Done?

For whatever it’s worth, I have a few suggestions:

  1. Condense these tests into 60-minute sessions per subject; these 240-minute tests per subject are a waste of time, energy, tax-payer money, and intelligence.
  2. We can ensure that schools have sufficient technology for students so that testing doesn’t have to be spread out over the course of a week or two in order to give everyone a turn on the devices.
  3. We can improve wireless networks state-wide (especially in rural districts) so that networks aren’t overloaded or unreliable.
  4. We can go back to paper/pencil tests.
  5. We can stop standardized testing. Instead, we could simply have a randomly selected group of students from each school take the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP)* and make recommendations to schools accordingly.

*The NAEP assessments are administered uniformly using the same sets of test booklets across the nation. The NAEP results serve as a common metric for all states and selected urban districts. The assessment stays essentially the same from year to year, with only carefully documented changes. This permits NAEP to provide a clear picture of student academic progress over time.

Over-testing has done nothing for our gifted and exceptional education students, and it sure hasn’t done anything to benefit our lower-income students or our minority students or our English-language learner students. The achievement gap keeps widening, and we simply respond with more ineffective testing to make schools better.

What if, instead of spending all this time on testing, we spent all this brilliant energy and money innovating in the classroom and partnering with communities to educate our kids – all our kids? Or we can keep doing what I’ve just described above – waste precious time and resources.

(1) 1 Jesse Hagopian, Preface: The Testocracy versus the Education Spring in MORE THAN A SCORE: THE NEW UPRISING AGAINST HIGH-STAKES TESTING 7, 9 (Jesse Hagopian ed., Haymarket Books, 2014).