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Will more (or less) high-stakes testing improve education?

Let’s take a pop quiz on the ongoing debate over high-stakes testing, an issue that is nothing less emotional than the way our schools teach our children. First questions, then answers:

Does high-stakes testing improve education? Does it lead to better teaching and learning? Do countries with high-performing schools rely on it? Does it help narrow the achievement gaps among different racial and socioeconomic groups of students?

Here’s the correct answer: No. None of the above. Absolutely not.

Synthesizing a body of research on this topic, the National Research Council concluded educational gains were marginal at best and high-stakes testing can be harmful for high-risk students. We can certainly learn lessons from high-performing countries that promote higher standards, quality teachers, stronger community and greater equity. But high-stakes testing does not belong on that list. Nations that once counted on high-stakes testing now lean away from standardized testing due to unintended negative consequences for engagement, creativity and innovation.

The Obama administration’s recent announcement of test reduction, along with a two percent cap on the percentage of mandated testing time during the school year, is overdue damage control. Further, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), gives more flexibility about the schedule and practice of mandated state testing. These testing policy changes would give some relief to both educators and parents who have worried about the negative consequences of overtesting for children in public schools.

Now, it is time to ask different questions: Will test reduction improve education? Does less high-stakes testing mean less teaching to the test (drill and kill practice) and more authentic student learning?

Unfortunately, the answers are less certain and may depend on what local educators, parents and students do as much as what the federal and state governments do for the next steps.

It’s true that reducing time for testing and redesigning tests are necessary remedial steps. Schools need more balanced and comprehensive approach to accountability beyond test scores, including measures of students’ socio-emotional skills and creativity. School administrators and teachers should engage in collective and reflective inquiry on their performance against broad-based educational mission. Our schools need standards-based education with room for individualization and innovation, not standardized education. One size never fits all.

Learning results depend on “time on task”–that is, actual time that students spend on learning tasks, as opposed to official class time, which can be wasted and lost by the use of ineffective instructional methods and inadequate class activities such as test-taking practices. Learning opportunity will continue to get lost and achievement gap will widen among disadvantaged minority children if they were to miss schools or be tardy for classes. It is critical for educators and parents to help improve students’ learning environment and engagement at both their home and school. There is no royal road to learning.

Featured image credit: Classroom. CC0 via Pixabay.

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