Labor Voices: The end of standardized testing

Steven Cook

When Johnny comes home exhausted from taking a six-hour test in elementary school, parents aren’t happy. When Janey collapses in tears on her computer keyboard from trying to read text that is beyond her middle school grade level, teachers feel crushed. When students are denied the use of technology for actual learning, because every computer and tablet in their district is tied up in testing for weeks, children lose and lose again.

Now change is in the air. The love affair that legislators and state education officials had with standardized testing seems to be fading. Is it possible that decision-makers have heard the chorus of objections to our society’s over valuing of standardized testing?

That chorus has been led by members of the Michigan Education Association, educators who are the real experts on the front lines in classrooms across the state. For years these experts have exposed problems with standardized testing and their cries have gotten louder as the number and length of these tests have grown exponentially. A few weeks ago, we solicited feedback from our members on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP), and the larger issue of standardized testing in general. Since then, we have had hundreds of responses — revealing the depth of professional educators’ concerns. Here’s a sampling:

“We now test over one third of the school year. It monopolizes our school’s technology. It interrupts instruction. It’s developmentally inappropriate. Put that money into lower class size. Testing is not the answer.”

“Practice tests, test preparation and the actual tests are wasting valuable instruction time.”

“Let teachers create their own assessments and stop selling our kids to big for-profit testing companies.”

“We are testing third graders like they are college students. The test took from 9:20 am until 3:30 pm when the last student finished. There is no value in the results of a test that caused tremendous anxiety in my students and took an entire day to complete.”

The frustration is evident, as is the deep concern these teachers express for their students.

Educators identified a myriad of problems associated with the M-STEP, including the length of the test, the lack of student motivation to engage, the tying up of technology for weeks, and the difficulty students had in navigating the technology to complete the test.

Legislators appear to have heard the criticisms. In the recent House education budget, funding for M-STEP was eliminated. Credit should also go to the new state superintendent of public instruction, Brian Whiston. Immediately upon taking office, he moved to reduce the amount of hours of standardized testing for students in grades 3, 8, and 11. Those are positive steps, but they are incremental.

A comprehensive solution is needed, one that takes a completely new approach to assessment. The recently passed federal education law known as ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) encourages states and/or districts to develop higher quality, authentic assessments such as portfolios, projects and performance-based tasks that better support high-quality teaching and learning. This type of innovative approach would combine learning and assessment so that we could do both at the same time and not be trapped in the “teaching versus testing” dilemma we now find ourselves in.

Think of the hundreds of millions of dollars we now spend on standardized testing that could be spent on technology, updated textbooks and better professional development for teachers. Think of the multiple days of instruction time given back to teachers and students — and the effect that would have on student achievement.

Finally, imagine the parents who, when asking their child what they learned in school today, no longer have to hear the response, “Nothing. We just took another test.”

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 Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.