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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and author of Meditation in the College Classroom: A Pedagogical Tool to Help Students De-Stress, Focus,...
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What Will It Take to Address the Over-Testing Culture in U.S. Schools?

Whenever I ask my daughters what they did in school, the answer is they generally took a test.

One day, they sighed and asked me if I had taken that many tests as a child, to which I replied “no.” They then ask me why they have to take so many tests, to which I don’t have any answer.

The testing culture in schools is absurd and shows little signs of slowing.  Depending on what report you read, students spend anywhere from 10 to 19 school days each year testing. That number only paints a partial picture, since that accounts for standardized, state-mandated testing and does not factor in the numerous, daily tests that students must complete for grades (spelling tests, chapter tests, quizzes, etc.) An American Federation of Teachers report in 2013 found that one school district spent 19 days in test preparation and taking state-mandated tests.

Another district spent two full weeks preparing for and taking tests. A more recent report in 2016 confirmed that the average of number of days students spend on testing averages about 19 days.

Educators even refer to this time of year as the “testing season.” Merriam-Webster defines a season as “a time characterized by a particular circumstance or feature; a suitable or natural time or occasion.”  An entire period during the school year allocated to testing—am I the only one who thinks this is irrational, crazy in fact? Certainly, I’m not the only one who disapproves of this practice. A Center on Education Policy study, for example, revealed that 81 percent of teachers believed their students spent too much time testing.  Teachers, the experts in education, believe it’s overkill.

The testing obsession robs teachers and students of valuable instruction time—or the actual process of learning. Also, I haven’t even weighed in on the financial cost of all this testing. One district, featured in the AFT report spent $50 to $70 per student on testing.  This might not sound like a lot, but when multiplied by thousands of students in a district, this becomes a substantial cost.  As the AFT posited, “Redirected time and money devoted to excessive testing could be used, for example, to focus on problem-solving and critical-thinking skills and to restore subjects not tested and/or that have been cut, such as art, music, physical education and foreign languages.”

But what’s being done about the amount of time testing? Where are the parents, the teachers, the educational reformists, the rational thinkers?  In my view, this is a silent crisis plaguing our schools.  I seldom read or hear about this crisis in the media, for instance.  I see no movement towards improving this situation.

Perhaps most discouraging is the impact the present testing culture has on students’ attitudes and perceptions of school. If school can be considered an experience, what has testing done to alter this experience? Can you imagine stopping a movie every 10 minutes to evaluate whether you enjoy the movie, whether it is high-quality, whether the acting is good? Can you imagine interrupting the playing of a sport to evaluate or assess one’s performance? It simply destroys the continuity, the overall quality of the experience—in this case, learning and intellectual and academic growth.

Finally, I am not theoretically against assessment in schools. In fact, testing data is a crucial element for teachers, helping them plan and provide instruction.  Assessment provides a vehicle to determine if students “are getting it.” I’m just against the way it’s being done, in particular, the amount of time spent on testing. If testing is considered “good,” by educators, it’s simply a matter of too much of a good thing.