Labor Voices: Overtesting isn’t good for anybody

Steven Cook

Teaching versus testing. That’s what it comes down to.

In April, school districts began testing students across the state on the new Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) standardized test. A few days later, I asked some of our teachers how that was going. Their reply, in a word: dreadful.

The primary complaint: this new test is stealing time from instruction and the curriculum. Testing began April 1 and continues through the week of June 1. Combine this with the Northwest Evaluation Assessment testing in the fall, winter and spring and it is no wonder parents as well as teachers are rebelling against additional testing.

Teachers report that the M-STEP test is taking much more time than projected. In many cases an entire school day is spent on the test and still students were unable to complete it. They were then “locked out” for failing to adhere to the original directive from the Department of Education that the test be completed on the same day it was begun. After being deluged with complaints, the department changed their directive and now allows the test to be completed on another day. That’s another day spent testing, not teaching.

M-STEP is primarily an online test, which brings a whole host of additional problems. M-STEP appears to be testing a student’s ability to manipulate the technology of the test, as opposed to the actual content. Teachers are finding many younger students lack the technological ability to perform the tasks required to answer the questions, even if they know the answer.

The hours and days taken to administer the test ties up the school’s computers and computer labs, making them unavailable to other students and classes to do their work. In many schools, computer labs are in school libraries, which are now off-limits during testing periods.

On top of those troubling problems, we are finding that the infrastructure in many districts is not able to meet the needs of the M-STEP. Computers are crashing and locking up during the test, causing delays in testing and additional stress on students.

Problems with M-STEP are reaffirming many parents opposition to what they view as an overemphasis on standardized testing, at the expense of actual instruction. Many parents are considering opting out their children from the test. While many teachers understand parents’ frustration, they and district administrators also know the state requires a minimum of 95 precent of students to take the test. Districts that fall below that rate could see their statewide rating lowered as a result.

In light of all of these problems, it is easy to see why many educators think M-STEP is shorthand for “misstep.” In their efforts to Leave No Child Untested, policymakers have failed miserably with this new test.

But the larger question should be: “What does education in Michigan mean?” One standardized test after another? What do we hope to learn from these standardized tests that will actually improve education? What have the myriad of tests prior to M-STEP done to improve student outcomes? Given the problems with this particular test, any data collected is bound to be unreliable.

MEA members in classrooms across the state have expertise and are available to policymakers to help examine Michigan’s entire testing program. With their input, we can make testing more relevant, less costly and take less time away from instruction.

Educators know that more testing means less teaching. Parents are beginning to understand this when they ask their children, “What did you learn in school today?” and their response is, “Nothing, we just took another test.”

Steven Cook is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.