From time to test to time to learn

It’s April, so there’s a deadline coming up that we’re all familiar with, and I’m not talking about Tax Day (Tuesday, April 18, by the way).  If you’re an educator, you know April is memorable for another reason: It is testing season, the time of year when we spend a lot of our time proctoring tests instead of teaching critical thinking skills and fostering creativity.

There’s been lots of activity in recent years by educators and parents to restore balance when it comes to standardized testing. NEA’s Time to Learn campaign focuses on over-testing, redundant testing, and any testing that takes valuable time away from teaching and learning.

Our campaign has renewed energy and focus this year because of the Every Student Succeeds Act, also known as ESSA, the new federal education law. ESSA gives us an opportunity for audits of all the standardized tests mandated not only by federal and state governments, but also by school districts. That way, we can pinpoint the tests that are duplicative, unnecessary, or not particularly useful.

The audits are sure to back up what our experience tells us.  Let me put it this way: If we had a dime for every test we administered, there’d be a worldwide shortage of copper. (Yep, copper. That’s what dimes are mostly made of.)

When NEA surveyed 1,500 pre-K-12 teachers a couple of years ago, more than 40 percent said the emphasis on improving standardized test scores had a negative impact on their classroom.

“I would much rather help students learn how to conduct research and how to discuss and how to explore controversies and how to complete multi-task projects than teach them how to recall this or that fact for an exam,” one teacher said.

As 2013 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Megan Olivia Hall and I wrote in an op-ed last year: Teachers aren’t afraid of tests—we invented them. We appreciate tests when they yield useful information that informs and improves instruction. We don’t like them when they take away time for the one-on-one attention that can spark students’ curiosity and desire to learn. After all, that’s why we became educators in the first place.

ESSA encourages test audits by your school districts to uncover how much time and how many resources are dedicated to standardized testing. This involves a request by you, or members of the community, to your local school board. You can get much more information about the process and find out how other districts have done it by checking out our Time to Learn page.

In our survey, teachers on average reported spending about 30 percent of their work time on testing-related tasks, including test prep, proctoring, and review of results.  One teacher said her school spent at least eight weeks on testing during the school year—and that didn’t even include all the associated tasks. And a whopping 45 percent said they had considered leaving the profession because of standardized testing.

Across the nation, NEA affiliates and parents are calling attention to testing that takes valuable time away from teaching. In some places, they’re hosting “Take the Test” nights, when parents are invited to take the exams their children take. What parents often find is that the tests are loaded up with questions designed less to measure learning and growth than to trip up test-takers.  NEA affiliates are also hosting movie nights where they show documentaries about the toll of too much testing.

When I think about the students I taught in Utah, the best times seeing a spark of recognition that we all know so well: when a concept finally clicks and we see that “I get it!” look in a student’s eyes. I never, ever saw that look during a standardized test, and it’s something no test can even measure.

This April, as you’re watching students sit through their umpteenth exam, know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. And with ESSA, we can shine that light brightly.

5 Responses to “From time to test to time to learn”

  1. Laurie. garvin

    We did we become educators to proctor tests. We are educators so our students will love learning.

  2. Jessica Lawrence

    Why is the test in April when there are 2 months left to teach?

  3. Susan

    Would love to be spending as much time teaching students critical thinking as I do test taking strategy.

  4. Kristin

    In NYS the ELA exams were in March. How on earth did the state decide this? But math exams are in May. Why don’t they give these exams at the end of the year like the Regent’s exams? My students are SO tired of test prep. Of course we aren’t supposed to be doing any, but when our test scores aren’t high enough, don’t for a second think that the principal isn’t giving teachers the story that “it’s a good thing there’s a moratorium on using test scores for APPR or you would be going through a 3020-A right now.”

  5. Gerry Johnson

    One of the least logical things that occurs during the testing I am required to proctor is the rigid, non research-based requirement that students who finish early must stay seated in the same exam room and do NOTHING for the remainder of the test time; no reading, no projects, no research, no going to a study center where they can continue working on school-related projects or even homework. Instead, they are required to just sit silently, or trying to sleep while in their standard chairs/desks.

    So everyone who takes tests easily or is just efficient with their time and finishes exams early is punished the same way; having 1-2 hours of their valuable learning time wasted EVERY DAY during testing. Last week at my high school, that was Tuesday through Friday – 4 out of 5 instruction days. No exceptions, no change, no discussion.

    These are EXACTLY the students who need to be freed to work on other things, like the 4-6 hours of homework from their multiple AP courses with which they are burdened almost every night….

    And we wonder why there is so little joy left in their faces, and why so many are stressed, depressed, or have lowered self esteem.


Leave a Reply