Posted on February 8, 2016

Education in the U.S.: Part 4

Entertainment

“Education in the U.S.: Part 4” is the final installment in our four-part series and emphasizes testing in a school environment. Student Life editor Jake Norman will discuss controversial issues that run rampant in our education system, yet are widely overlooked.

Testing has become an integral part of our curriculum in school today. Whether it is for measuring performance or determining if a student is qualified to move on to the next grade level, we as a nation have begun to use testing to create a baseline for where students should be at any given point in their schooling. To put it bluntly, we love to test in the U.S. The question, however, is do we love it too much?

As mentioned before, this level of testing was created in order to set a so-called “academic standard” in our schools to assure that students are receiving the education they need. In the “No Child Left Behind Act,” the tests’ purpose is to create a standard for individual states to follow, to make sure every student is learning what they need to know before they move on to the next level. It works on paper: schools create a baseline to follow and if a student is not ready, give them another year to catch up. Some of the flaws in this concept however, are as follows:

  1. We may be over-testing. According to PBS, “students take as many as 20 standardized assessments annually and an average of 10 tests in grades three to eight.”
  2. New tests with new material are made every year, but that does not mean students are receiving the new material to study. “The textbooks that have the certain material that will be on the test aren’t always available,” says Penny Greer, a retired school teacher. “If we’re going to keep making more tests, we need to offer the new material.”
  3. The definition of a standardized test. According to the Glossary of Education Reform, a standardized test is a test that “(1) requires all test takers to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from common bank of questions, in the same way, and that (2) is scored in a “standard” or consistent manner,” which allows them to be compared to other students’ tests.
  4. Testing has become a business. According to another PBS report, in 1955 the amount of money made off of test sales was $7 million (adjusted to the dollar in 1998). In 1997, test sales were $263 million, an increase of more than 3,000 percent.

Each of these issues is key to understanding the problem with testing.

How Much Do We Truly Test?

According to the aforementioned PBS report, in research done by the Council of the Great City Schools, students will take an average of 113 standardized tests between kindergarten and grade 12. Testing this much creates several problems in our schools. For starters, it takes time out of actually learning material. The report adds that 1.6% of instructional time was spent testing. When you have to sacrifice this much time testing, it begs the question: how much more could our students be learning? What is this doing to our students? According to Psych Central, making students test this much during their adolescent years can be dangerous. Psych Central states that “increased pressures to perpetually produce high test scores only add stress to their already vulnerable mental states.” If we want our students to perform better in schools, we need to lessen the load. Holding students to the standards of these tests are not only hazardous to their education, but their health as well.

New Tests and New Methods, But Old Material

Every year we create new tests and we create new ways to instruct students, but we give students the same old resources every year. “The only way they’re going to get students to succeed in these tests, is by giving them required material,” says Kelley Kirby, a teacher for the Keller Independent School District. “The people giving the tests to these students need to be accountable for offering the material too.”

According to Scholastic, states buy new textbooks for one subject per year (called the textbook-adoption cycle). This means that each subject in school can have one textbook for a subject anywhere from 7 to 10 years. The reason for this is because, on average, textbooks cost around $100 per book, so resupplying an entire school with new textbooks would be difficult financially.

Yet when talking about the textbook cycle, different school districts and states are on different cycles. This essentially derails the effectiveness of a standardized test. If students across different districts are reading different textbooks, then, to a certain degree, they are reading different material. If the purpose of a standardized test is to make everything the same, be it the tests and environment, why would the material not also be the same? This means the people who make these tests but do not provide the appropriate material for the test, are putting students at a disadvantage. It may seem crazy to say we need to resupply textbooks every year, but that is the standard being set by test makers.

Big Business

With all the flaws in testing students, why have we not seen a change? It all comes down to money. Testing has become big business. According to PBS, the testing market’s value today is estimated to be anywhere from $400 to $700 million. The four companies, Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing and NCS Pearson, write 96% of the tests given at state level. This is a problem, as any reform that may try to take place has been stunted by education firms lobbying. According to the Washington Post, “the four corporations that dominate the U.S. standardized testing market spend millions of dollars lobbying state and federal officials,” which includes pushing legislation for more mandated tests. These policies would help create a $2 billion annual testing business. The four corporations mentioned by the Washington Post spent more that $20 million in lobbying from 2009 to 2014.

What Needs to Happen?

At the end of the day, it seems like an uphill battle to fix not only this aspect of education, but the other flaws that exist in it as well. What is the solution? Unfortunately, it involves holding politicians more accountable, whether it is when they deal with lobbyists or pass legislation. Citizens also need to participate in the political process more. We need to realize the hypocrisies that exist in our testing system. Several teachers across the country have made it a point to say these methods are not working, but nothing is done about it. The original concept seems beautiful: create a standard that we hold students to and help them meet it. Yet it is not that simple. There are many facets that have to be considered when creating a standard. There are many changes that need to be made, not only in testing, but in education in general. We have to make changes, and it has to be soon.

Photo by: Abby Pfaff

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