One Hundred Twelve.
The average student takes 112 standardized tests between Kindergarten and 12th grade. This equates to nearly 50 days of standardized testing over a child's school career.
Sure, standardized tests provide schools with valuable data. Not only do they measure student growth, standardized tests also serve as one indicator of district progress.
However, in an era when schools are more pressed for time than ever before, is all the testing worth the cost?
There are hundreds of standardized tests in the world today. ACT, SAT, MAP, NAEP, AP, IB, FAST, STAR ... pick a few letters from the alphabet and you probably have yourself an exam.
However, one standardized test stands alone when it comes to high stakes testing in American schools:
The state standardized test.
To say most school districts put an emphasis on state assessments would be an understatement.
District leaders set goals for student proficiency. School improvement teams revisit plans for improving scores. Teachers are reminded of the importance of posting high marks. Students are drilled with questions likely to be covered on the tests.
The week (or month!) of the state assessments, schools cease normal operations. Schedules are adjusted. Lunches are altered. Visitors are limited. Field trips are cancelled. Activities are postponed.
When word leaks that test scores will soon be released, anxiety rises. How will the scores look? Did our students do well? Is our school any good?
When a school earns high scores, euphoria rings throughout the building. Pep assemblies are planned and pizza parties are scheduled. Kids earn extra recess, teachers receive gifts, and the principal receives public recognition. All staff are rockstars. Life could not be any better.
When a school earns low scores, misery afflicts those within the building. Focus groups are planned and intensive training is scheduled. Kids get extra homework, teachers get reprimanded, and the principal is on the hot-seat. All staff are failures. Life could not be any worse.
Sound like your district?
I produce a weekly podcast where I interview educational leaders in a variety of settings. One of my favorite episodes was with George Couros. George is a prominent educational consultant and the author of The Innovator's Mindset and Innovate Inside the Box.
George resides in Edmonton, Alberta and has the unique opportunity of looking at American schools from an "outsider" perspective. With this in mind, I asked George to share the biggest difference he's noticed between Canadian and American schools.
His answer? Standardized testing.
“There is a such a focus on standardized testing (in American schools). It is ridiculous."
George went on to share his philosophy on standardized testing:
"When I was a principal we improved our standardized tests, but it wasn’t because we placed a large emphasis on the tests. It was because we placed a large emphasis on taking care of our kids.”
"If you feel valued, and you feel taken care of as a person, I guarantee you will do better at your job. Why is that any different than our kids?”
"No teacher grew up saying, 'You know what I want to do when I get older? Test kids. That will be awesome. I just want to spend my life testing children.' Rather, they talk about making a difference."
"I think we have become so obsessed with testing, we have lost site of why we became educators in the first place."
What is the focus in your district?
Taking care of kids?
Or doing well on tests?
Unfortunately, the latter is where the priority lies in many districts.
Having worked in a handful of school districts across three different states, I've experienced standardized testing in a variety of settings. In some districts, testing is one of many things that matters. In other districts, testing is the only thing that matters.
I've learned the culture of standardized testing comes down to one thing: leadership.
How school leadership treats standardized tests has a dramatic impact on the culture of the school.
Leaders who stress about tests and place great emphasis on scores create a culture where others mirror these behaviors. Alternately, leaders who acknowledge the importance of the tests but also downplay their magnitude establish an environment where others share this level-headed approach.
How does one go about normalizing tests? Given the default mindset towards tests are fear and worry, "do nothing" is not the answer. Instead, leaders hoping to create change must proactively embed their testing philosophy at several levels within the district.
Many of us have worked in school districts where school leaders are condemned after one poor round of tests scores. While leaders must be held accountable to data, to suggest their job is in jeopardy as a result of one test is unreasonable. Instead, administrator job performance must be based on several data points over time. This stance gives leaders the confidence needed to perform their jobs at high levels.
If you think administrators get nervous about standardized tests, clearly you've forgotten teachers! Rather than be riddled with anxiety as the testing window approaches, teachers must be reassured that one round of test scores will not define their success. Similar to administrators, teachers do their best work when their supervisor expresses complete confidence in their abilities. School leaders must constantly re-communicate this attitude to faculty.
Don't forget about students when it comes to sharing a testing philosophy. Students are often told that testing will have a major impact on the future of their schooling. While there may be some truth to these words, leadership must send the message that standardized testing is simply one piece of the puzzle. With test anxiety at all-time highs, students perform much better when they have staff in their corner.
Finally, the community must also be indoctrinated on standardized test theory. External pressure from stakeholders can be huge, especially in high-performing districts. School leaders would be wise to review and refine communication of district data that provides a well-rounded view of a school's performance as opposed to simply focusing on standardized tests. And when standardized tests scores are shared, the community must be provided important context so they have a better perspective on what the scores really mean.
Yes, tests scores are important.
Yes, tests aren't going away.
Yes, years of poor scores must be addressed.
However, let's stop placing so much emphasis on the test.
Instead, let's place emphasis on taking care of kids.