With state testing ongoing, columnists George Bernard and James Underwood debate whether it should be scaled back.
No, state testing should not be scaled back.
BY GEORGE BERNARD, ’23.
There are few things in life that are fair, without any bias favoring one over another, but that is what state testing is. Every student in Ohio takes the same test with the same amount of time and resources, giving every student an equal opportunity to score well regardless of background. There is no opportunity for preparation, and it isn’t used in college admissions, but that doesn’t make it any less important. While there is a modest correlation between socioeconomic status and scores, that is a reflection of an unfair world, not an unfair test. Furthermore, standardized tests are one of the most accurate methods of predicting college success, confirming their ability to measure academic aptitude. Therefore, using an even-handed test is important to assessing students’ abilities relative to others and measuring the effectiveness of teachers and districts.
First, we’re going to take a step back and define exactly what the government’s objective in education is so we can see if scaling back state testing will advance or stray from these goals.
The mission statement for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) is, “In Ohio, each child is challenged to discover and learn, prepared to pursue a fulfilling post-high school path and empowered to become a resilient, lifelong learner who contributes to society.”
According to the ODE, students begin to take standardized tests in English and Mathematics in 3rd grade, and then, every year until the end of middle school with science tests in 5th and 8th grades. According to Time magazine, the most important point in a child’s education is achieving reading, writing and speaking fluently by 3rd grade. If delayed, the child may consistently lag behind their peers and require extra help to catch back up. That is why testing early is critical to prevent any child from getting so far behind that they stop learning.
On the other end of the spectrum, testing can also serve to find students that possess more academic and mental aptitude than their peers, allowing for them to be placed in more advanced classrooms. Without testing, the process of placing gifted students in advanced classrooms becomes much more subjective, as it relies more on teacher recommendation or other non-numerical systems which are more liable to racial and socioeconomic baises. Using testing programs is the best objective method of making sure every student is challenged by enabling educators to place gifted students in advanced classrooms.
In addition to standardized testing for 3-8th graders, Ohio also requires End-of-Course testing for English Language Arts II, Algebra I, Geometry, Biology, American History and U.S. Government. These are equally important because they are necessary to confirm that students have a solid foundation in subjects essential to future employment and for most, higher education.
At the end of the day, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that today’s kids will grow up to be educated and productive citizens, and testing is the best way to fulfill that goal. By making sure elementary schoolers become fluent in English and understand basic mathematics at a young age, a foundation is created for the years to come. The yearly testing from then on prevents students from falling behind and promotes continuous learning. In high school, testing in ELA, Algebra I, Geometry and Biology creates a framework for the two-thirds of high school graduates that attend a higher education institution. Most importantly, testing in American History and U.S. Government helps to create a new generation of responsible citizens who understand the importance of participatory democracy. By scaling back testing, we would be removing a central tool to successfully educating our youth.
Yes, testing should be scaled back.
BY JAMES UNDERWOOD, ’23.
State testing assumes that everything important in education can be flattened into a standard metric. Through a grid of multiple-choice bubbles, state tests try to measure how well a student has mastered a handful of “learning targets” deemed important by the powers that be. But these tests make no room for depth, complexity or nuance. They do not care for the beauty, chaos, creativity and randomness inherent to true learning. Standardized state tests, in other words, try to quantify the unquantifiable.
State testing’s shortcomings and limitations are especially harmful when it has real-world consequences, creating vicious feedback loops of poverty and stagnation. State testing factors into a district’s state report card, which presumably is considered by those deciding where to raise their family. In turn, when districts vie for new residents and new growth (and thus new tax revenue), they are incentivized to try to boost their state testing scores whether that means boosting actual learning or not. From this comes “teaching to the test,” in which state testing is not just a tool in the school administrator’s or government bureaucrat’s toolbox but instead becomes an ends in and of itself.
Of course, families can’t be blamed for wanting their children to have a good education; likewise, it only makes sense that districts want a spot at the top of the testing leaderboard. The problem comes when state testing picks up on existing inequalities (across any number of social, demographic or economic lines) and doesn’t resolve but rather reinforces them, preventing underprivileged communities from gaining the wealth and social capital from which they have been historically excluded.
And, on that note, it’s not as though state tests are the unbiased equalizers they’re made out to be. Too often, state testing scores are measures neither of “natural” aptitude nor of earned smarts or hard work but rather of social class and wealth. Of course, state tests may well reveal real educational disparities (it should be no surprise that underfunded schools score worse than affluent ones like UAHS), but that does not make these tests a useful metric.
And that’s to say nothing of the time we spend on state testing. This year alone, the six end-of-course testing days, each with its own 130-minute delay, have eaten up 13 hours of instructional time. While upperclassmen may enjoy that time to sleep in (I know I did), others aren’t so lucky. Those who have to take end-of-course exams are made to recite course materials early in the morning and for an uncomfortably long two hours. And teachers, many already overstrained and pressured to get through all their course content in time for AP or IB testing, are forced to condense their material according to the demands of 30-minute class periods.
Proponents of state testing may argue that we need it to effectively teach or to create a “foundation” for students’ learning. But how can measuring learning be learning? After all, checking your height doesn’t make you taller, and measuring your height with a warped or inaccurate measuring stick is straight-up useless.
So, what should be done? I’m not proposing that state testing be done away with altogether. Still, I believe we should first resist the urge to measure learning at all. Maybe it’s fair for states to set standards of learning, but we shouldn’t (try to) measure students’ learning for the sake of it, especially if those measurements don’t truly track learning.
Second, to the extent that we do need to measure students’ performance (for, say, identifying at-risk students), grades, GPAs and student evaluations can be handy metrics that are already built-in to the school experience. And while students can meet a graduation requirement through state testing, they can check off the same box with their SAT or ACT score—something many students already take seriously anyway.
Finally, the resources and time devoted to measuring student performance can be reallocated to actually fixing the disparities in educational opportunity that we already know exist. If we do use state testing, we should use it to find educational inequalities and to seek solutions to close them. Just crunching these scores into a district “report card” isn’t enough; we need real investment in and opportunity for struggling schools. State testing may be one piece of the larger puzzle of K-12 education in America, but, at least without the other pieces, it is ultimately a harm to students and districts alike.