The toxic environment of standardized testing

Mike Lerchenfeldt

High-quality tests that accurately assess student learning and help teachers understand how to improve instruction are an essential part of an excellent education. But in some states and districts today, large-scale standardized testing has gotten out of hand, with students taking as many as 20 standardized tests per year.

This was the situation in Michigan not too long ago. Teachers, parents, and students felt powerless when it came to government-mandated standardized tests such as the Michigan Student Test for Educational Progress (M-STEP).

It was difficult for us to understand if the amount of time spent on standardized testing was actually beneficial to students. Hours were taken away from teaching and learning time last school year in order to administer the M-STEP. This was a problem.

Many teachers thought standardized tests were an unreliable and inaccurate measure of student growth. Educators argued standardized tests should not be on the cutting edge of education because it promotes teaching to the test, which can impede, rather than promote, learning. Frustrated teachers and parents of Michigan finally came together and demanded less time for standardized testing and more time for learning. They had enough.

After listening to public opinions, complaints, and feedback, the Michigan Department of Education shortened the length of the M-STEP. This change shows the importance of teachers’ voices in education policy.

Teachers need to be as respected as other professionals. They need to have a say in education reform efforts. Michigan lawmakers seem to have accepted the importance of teacher input when developing education policies.

But one thing our state’s elected leaders can’t continue to do is place such an emphasis on standardized testing. Instead, we must focus our energy on empowering all students to care and understand the importance of obtaining a quality education.

The goal of using data produced by standardized tests is to extract a correlation between the knowledge of the student and the effectiveness of the teacher. However, there is not a reliable learning assessment resource available to measure the different impact of each.

Besides the effectiveness of the teacher, the knowledge of the student is also affected by social factors such as student apathy, peer relations, poverty and parent involvement. Tests cannot be the only assessment used to help with the evaluating, rating, and ranking of schools, teachers and school systems.

The toxic environment of standardized testing is causing teachers to consider leaving the profession because of the increase in pressure, wasted time, and negative impact on the classroom. Standardized testing has eroded student learning time, while doing nothing to shed light on the achievement gaps between schools.

In 2002, No Child Left Behind doubled the number of standardized tests. Unfortunately, standardized testing does not solve our problems and has not increased student achievement (National Academy of Sciences, 2011). According to the 2015 Phi Delta Kappa Gallup Poll, the public is opposed to the emphasis on standardized testing.

There are many factors that impact student achievement in schools, including measures like student attendance, access to advanced courses and school discipline policies. These all need to be considered.

Lawmakers in Lansing might take a cue from education historian and policy analyst Diane Ravitch: “Sometimes the most brilliant and intelligent minds do not shine on standardized tests because they do not have standardized minds.”

Mike Lerchenfeldt, a member of the Michigan Educator Voice Fellowship, is a math and science teacher in the Chippewa Valley Schools.