How much time do teachers and students spend on standardized tests? That’s one of the big questions in public education today, which Adam Heenan, a Chicago school teacher and member of the Chicago Teachers Union addresses here.
By Adam Heenan
A few days ago, a colleague walked into our social studies department with a bubbled-in answer sheet from a test he had just administered. One student had turned the sheet on its side and bubbled in the colloquial acronym “YOLO” — You Only Live Once — on the exam. The teacher had created the test, but to the teenager, it was just one more exam in a seemingly endless series of bubble-sheet, auto-scored assessments.
I laughed at what the student had created, mostly because the “YOLO” script was evenly distributed across the length of the bubble sheet, demonstrating the student’s skill in measurement and design. But of course it isn’t funny. In my school, in just three weeks’ time, I have calculated that we spent 738 minutes (12 hours and 18 minutes) on preparing for and administering standardized tests. Our students are experiencing testing fatigue, which makes the results from each successive exam they take more invalid and the data about student learning more inaccurate. I can’t blame this student for speaking out against the excessive use of testing throughout our schools.
Though many people are waking up to the teach-to-the-test craziness gripping our schools, there are still many people who don’t understand the problem. They remember taking a few bubble tests as kids and didn’t think it was such a big deal — and for the most part, it wasn’t. At no time before now was kindergarten ever synonymous with 14 different tests per year, as journalist Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader has pointed out.
But the one-day, once-every-few-years standardized testing experience they remember is a far cry from the pervasive, high-stakes phenomenon testing has become. In order to make better policy choices about how we spend our precious education resources, the public needs to know just how much time and money has been spent on high-stakes testing in the No Child Left Behind era. This is why I and others have pushed for a full audit of the time and money that has been spent on all of this testing and test-prep, a call now supported by both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
This year alone, my colleagues and I have devoted a significant chunk of the additional time we were supposed to have for teaching and collaborating to testing. By mid-October, our school had already sacrificed a week’s worth of teaching and learning time for Chicago’s standardized beginning-of-the-year exams for students in their regular classes, to be repeated for the middle-of-the-year and end-of-the-year exams as well. There have been two days of “testing schedules,” where teachers and students in grades 9, 10 and 11 have had to sacrifice instructional time for EPAS exams (the system of grade-aligned tests from ACT). We have devoted our own time to looking at the data, and common planning time to talking about looking at the data and learning the tests’ gibberish language of “RIT Bands,” “cut scores,” “BOYs, MOYs, and EOYs,” none of which translate to classroom practice. It seems like every single professional conversation we have is not talking about students, but rather about the tests others create.
And because the stakes of these tests are so high, even the allegedly “optional” tests and interventions become—culturally, if not officially— mandatory. Officials higher up on the school district chain of command constantly warn those of us down below that “we must get our test scores up,” that “our school has been on probation way too long,” and that test-driven sanctions like closure or turnaround are constant threats. Because test scores are being misused as evidence that schools and the people in them—including administrators, teachers, students and even the lunch lady—are failures in teaching and learning, administrators and teachers succumb to the pressure to focus ever more closely on testing.
My colleagues and I are tired of the obsessive testing culture in our school. We just want to teach. And judging by all the petitions, testimonials and even wristbands we’ve seen echoing that sentiment, this is a national problem, not just ours.
We need to know how much time and money test-driven policymakers have diverted from teaching and learning into testing, and to show what we could be doing with those resources instead. Because, let’s face it: You only live once, and we can’t afford to waste precious minutes of our children’s education.