Failing Grade for Testing

A Dallas teacher, in The Dallas Morning News on October 17, 2014, writes that "the worship of data and the hyperreliance on the acquisition of test data lead to a disastrous loss of instructional time in the classroom. Every minute spent testing (and evaluating test results) is a minute that could be spent on actual instruction.

The worship of data and the hyperreliance on the acquisition of test data lead to a disastrous loss of instructional time in the classroom. Every minute spent testing (and evaluating test results) is a minute that could be spent on actual instruction.

In our current toxic “results-oriented” school system, which grades schools and school personnel primarily on student test scores, we have become obsessed with the constant collection of test data. The focus is almost exclusively on achieving higher test scores, regardless of their reliability as demonstrators of learning.

The result is that we now spend, unbelievably, nearly one-third of our invaluable class time testing.

In Dallas, at the high school level, we have 179 days for classroom instruction. Eight days are spent on final exams. Teachers are expected to administer several weekly quizzes or exams and a separate six-weeks exam during each of our six grading periods. Conservatively, these multiple expected quizzes and tests require 18 more instructional days.

The new teacher evaluation system requires a pre-test and post-test over key subject standards, surely costing at least an extra class period.

Also, teachers are required to provide common assessments four or five times per year to evaluate student growth toward the major exams. Conservatively, this costs another two days. The End of Course exams and the SAT or Advanced Placement exams will cost various students another three or more class periods, but that depends on the student. So let’s just say it’s a minimum of 30 full instructional days sacrificed directly to testing.

But there’s more.

Teachers are told to spend 10 to 20 percent of instructional time, every day at the end of the class, having students demonstrate what they learned. That adds up to 27 days of instructional time invested in testing.

In Dallas, therefore, we are spending somewhere around 57 entire instructional days giving tests to students.

Regardless of your belief in the disputed value of testing and test data, there is an opportunity cost to all testing. All of the time spent testing, regardless of its value as a tool for student learning, could have been spent in instruction. Even those who strongly support testing as an educational practice, and who are willing to overlook its numerous deficiencies as a data collection tool, ought to be wondering if it is valuable enough to surrender a third of the opportunity we have to be actually teaching children.

Finally, it is important to note your role in this decision. At some level, in Dallas or any other school system, the community decides how important tests are. The obsession of families, business and the media over test data pushes school districts to respond by focusing on the generation of “improved” test data. The purpose of our schools, however, is not the generation of test scores, it is the education of our youth. It is time to re-evaluate the way we are looking at our schools (and their staffs) and get back to thinking of them as places of learning — not testing. 

Peter Evett of Dallas teaches history at Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas and is a Teacher Voices volunteer columnist. His email address is pevett@dallasisd.org.

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