Students take, on average, more than 112 standardized tests between pre-K and grade 12, a recent report found.
It’s the middle of November and Anna Diemel is sleep-deprived.
The Reynolds High School junior had five tests last week. She took four tests on Thursday and a fifth on Friday.
And it’s the middle of November — not the end of the semester, or quarter even.
“Oh, at the end of the quarter it’s like a madhouse,” Diemel said. “You’re averaging as many cups of coffee as hours of sleep. It’s no fun for anyone.”
Diemel said last week’s onslaught was just because many of her classes happened to be ending subject units at the same time.
End of a unit means test.
And these tests — dozens per school year — aren’t even the ones that have been getting all of the attention lately.
President Barack Obama recently directed the U.S. Department of Education to review its own policies on testing and work with states and school districts to make sure required tests are high-quality and don’t take up too much classroom time.
Although standardized tests have long been part of the American education system, their use skyrocketed in the last decade or so in the wake of federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which sought greater accountability for school performance and student achievement.
A recent report from the Council of the Great City Schools found that students take, on average, more than 112 standardized tests between pre-K and grade 12.
Between federal, state and district testing requirements, students in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools are expected to take at least that many tests and assessments — ranging from short reading benchmarks in the earliest grades to 4-hour end-of-grade exams starting in the third grade and occurring nearly every year thereafter.
“There are a lot of them,” said Dana Wrights, the district’s Chief Program Officer for Accountability Services. “What really starts to consume people … is when we start looking at assessments that are large in nature and have such (high-stakes) tied to them, how much instruction time is lost.
“That’s been a concern for years, but the last few years we’ve seen an uptick in the number of tests we’re administering.”
The more than 100 standardized tests taken over the course of a student’s career don’t even begin to include pop quizzes, oral exams or tests that teachers write themselves. That count also doesn’t include any tests given in elective courses like arts, music, foreign language or many career and technical education courses.
Diemel estimates that in six of her courses this year, she’ll take about 10 end-of-unit tests on top the mandated end-of-quarter and end-of-course exams. Each of those will take about one class period. By the end of the year, that’s nearly three weeks worth of class time spent testing.
“The sheer amount of tests that high students have to take, I don’t really see the benefit of it,” Diemel said. “Tests do make you study and cram to understand concepts, but usually after the test you’re done.
“Once I’m done with a test that information is done.”
Students are not the only ones feeling the stress of so many required tests. It’s straining teachers who feel like they’re losing instructional time to testing and eating up valuable school resources.
The district created a half-time “testing coordinator” position at each school to manage all of the tests that must be administered throughout the year, because the job was previously handled by many schools’ curriculum coordinators and overwhelming their other duties.
North Carolina’s participation in the Race to the Top grant is one reason for the recent uptick, as is the state’s waiver from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (renamed No Child Left Behind when President George W. Bush signed the ESEA reauthorization in 2002).
The most recent driver of additional testing, though, is a state law. The Read to Achieve law, part of the 2012 Excellent Public Schools Act, was designed to ensure that all students are reading on grade level by the end of third grade. To do so, it added a number of additional tests and assessments.
All third-graders now take a beginning-of-grade reading test, in addition to the already-required end-of-grade reading exam and quarterly benchmarks. Struggling readers who haven’t demonstrated proficiency throughout the year and don’t pass the end-of-grade reading test must then take the Read to Achieve alternate exam. If they don’t pass that test, students will be given an end-of-grade retest.
All three of those will be given in the last 10 days of school.
Additionally, starting in kindergarten and lasting up through third grade, Read to Achieve requires students to be assessed three times throughout the year on teacher-administered reading tools called DIBELS Next and TRC.
“Long story short, yes — instructional time is lost,” said Charlotte Brown, a third-grade teacher at Whitaker Elementary.
Brown said the assessments, given one-on-one to each student, provide teachers valuable information but eat up a significant amount of classroom time. Between all of the Read to Achieve requirements, quarterly benchmark exams and the end-of-grade tests in math and reading Brown said some of her colleagues estimate that they lose up to half of a quarter preparing for or administering assessments.
“I haven’t calculated it myself … but that feels right to me,” she said.
That’s too much, say some state officials.
Earlier this year, a State Board of Education task force wrapped up a study of the state’s testing requirements and recommendation a drastic reduction in the number of tests given and the length of those tests.
The task force found that many of the required tests, like the 4-hour-long end-of-grade exams that start in the third grade and last through high school, are given to collect data or satisfy requirements of federal grants or programs. Although they may work to hold teachers accountable and measure school performance, those tests do little to actually benefit students, said A.L. “Buddy” Collins, vice chair of the State Board who led the testing task force.
“We need to change the paradigm of testing, so testing is done to inform instruction first and collect data second,” Collins said.
Many of the district- and teacher-created tests are added on top of state requirements to satisfy the desire for that kind of progress-monitoring, which adds to the testing overload.
But what if you could design tests that do both?
That’s the idea, Collins said, of the state’s proof-of-concept study taking place in a handful of schools throughout the state this year.
In place of large, high-stakes tests at the end of the year, schools will give shorter, interim exams throughout the year.
A successful program, Collins said, will collect the kind of data that end-of-grade exams were designed for, but do so in smaller portions throughout the year and provide teachers with information that can guide their instruction throughout the school year.
The proof-of-concept study, being conducted by DPI, will run through the rest of the school year. If successful, a similar initiative could be piloted next year.