How to Rise Above Standardized Testing

Standardized Testing

Accountability through standardized testing is as much a part of the educational experience for students as recess or fire drills. The term “high-stakes testing” strikes terror in the hearts of educators, but does it really have to be a negative for teachers, students, and school districts?

Accountability in education became a major focus in 2002 with the authorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. Annual spending on standardized testing rose from $423 million to over $1.7 billion by 2012. The information gathered from these assessments drives legislation, school reform, and public perception of how schools operate and prepare students for college and careers.

Within the walls of classrooms across the country, teachers plan lessons, provide intervention, analyze different types of assessments, and frantically review to prepare students for high-stakes testing. Each year, there is a fear of the unknown should students fail to meet expectations. All this can take the focus off any benefit from these assessments and place undue stress on teachers, parents, and students.

The need for accountability

By definition, accountability is the assignment of responsibility for conducting activities in a certain way or producing specific results. In any profession, accountability is a crucial component to maintaining consistency as well as determining effectiveness.

This definition applies in education, where consistency can often be the equalizer for a comparable educational experience from school to school. Ideally, educators would follow a set curriculum without major deviation and ensure high levels of learning for all students whether they are being held accountable at a higher level or not.

However, just like any other profession, a lack of accountability may result in a reduction of quality. When it comes to establishing a learning foundation for tomorrow’s leaders, poor quality is unacceptable.

The positives

Derrick Meador, a school administrator who blogs as The Teaching Expert, is among many educational researchers who recognize some of the positives associated with standardized testing. Consider the following positives to standardized testing:

  • The greatest benefit is that testing holds teachers and schools accountable.
  • An established framework of instructional skills is developed, preventing educators from different grade levels from presenting the exact same material.
  • There is also a greater focus on sub-groups through data analysis of standardized tests. At-risk groups, including students with limited English proficiency, special education needs, or belonging to specific ethnicities, can be highlighted, and strategies can be developed to aid in creating a beneficial learning environment.

The negatives

Visit any school, and there is a greater likelihood of finding educators who can present compelling arguments against standardized testing. Considering the amount of money spent each year on standardized testing as well as the threats of job loss or funding restrictions, student achievement has not improved.

Even with the use of test-based incentives in many states, a 2011 report by the National Research Council found no evidence that education has improved. Classroom teachers will emphasize the drawbacks of teaching to the test and how standardized testing only measures a small portion of what makes education meaningful.

Student stress

Students are not immune to the effects of standardized testing. The pressures placed upon a school or a teacher to excel pour over to the students, resulting in a great deal of stress for all involved. Legislative bills and laws are in place to penalize students as young as 8 with retention if they do not meet standards.

Natasha Segool, a University of Hartford psychology professor, conducted a study in 2009 and found that 11 percent of students she surveyed had severe psychological and physiological symptoms related to standardized testing. Parents have taken notice and are petitioning for “opt-out options” that remove their children from the testing loop. However, the end result of such requests is punishment for the school based on penalizations for students who do not test. Schools may receive failing scores for nonparticipating students.

Tips for a happier classroom

Assessment and accountability have become the cornerstone for education. The best educators recognize this fact and design a classroom environment that works rather than allowing the system to work them into a pile of nerves.

Scholastic editor Donna Clovis offers four suggestions to reduce assessment anxiety for teachers and students:

  • Create a positive atmosphere. As adults, we can shoulder a fair amount of responsibility and stress without involving those we serve. A classroom can be fun and focused. A teacher who chooses to prepare students through games, hands-on learning, and brain-based activities will have a class of eager learners compared to a teacher who chooses to push packet upon packet of test prep worksheets and silence onto students.
  • Replace dread with anticipation. Standardized testing does not define someone’s worth, rather it reflects what someone knows on a particular day. Rather than preparing students for a week of doom and gloom, emphasize the positives. Whether that’s allowing them to eat a peppermint so their brain will work better or highlighting that they won’t have homework for the week, staying positive will not only relieve stress in the students but a positive attitude will beneficially infect a teacher’s subconscious.
  • Practice time management. Students stress about finishing the test too fast, taking too long, or just running out of time. Prevent this by practicing ahead of time. Get students used to the testing routine so it’s not a foreign concept when the time comes. The more prepared the students are, the less stressed the teacher will be.
  • Involve parents. A child may have the greatest teacher in the school, but the parents make the greatest impact. Make them a partner by encouraging them throughout the year. Share the importance of attendance, reading at home, and completing homework. Don’t leave them in the dark about how the assessment process works and share ideas about reducing stress.

Every great athlete wants to perform at the highest level when the big game arrives. The same is true for every great teacher.

However, neither a teacher nor a student should base their entire year on one (or two) weeks of testing. If an educator has developed the best learning environment possible for all students, has provided support for those who struggle and enrichment for those who excel, has not forgotten those students who learn in ways outside of the norm, and creates lesson plans that are engaging and thought-provoking, then they have already succeeded.

A standardized test is a glimpse of what a child knows, but an effective teacher can prepare a child to become a leader. It is the legacy of students a teacher leaves behind that is the true accountability of how effective an educator has been.

Dr. Jason Perez is the head principal at Heritage Trails Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma, as well as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at St. Thomas University.

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