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Wondering What to Think About All These Tests?

Do you believe in accountability through statewide tests? Or do you worry that standardized tests will turn schools into test-prep factories?

By GreatSchools Staff

Some Historical Perspective

One of the reasons that federal and state governments are currently so focused on testing is that for years there was no common way to find out if children were meeting grade-level expectations. Without a coherent policy about testing, each district, and sometimes even each school, chose its own method to assess learning, creating a hodgepodge of data that was not comparable.

This lack of data led to a sense that some students - often poor and minority - were not mastering basic skills, and that schools were letting children slip through the cracks. The notion of accountability is that by mandating tests and publishing results, teachers, students and parents will stay focused on the most critical objective: ensuring that all students succeed.

Accountability has taken on an increased emphasis in schools across the country as a result of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which requires that schools show evidence of "adequate yearly progress," known as AYP, for all groups of students. Schools in years past considered to be high achieving may not make AYP if certain subgroups, such as English-language learners or minority groups, are not scoring at proficient levels. Schools that don't make the mark must provide transfer options for their students and provide supplemental services, including tutoring.

NCLB defines national standards for achievement, but it's important to remember that each state designates its own test for measuring achievement. Consequently, some states have higher standards than others. In addition, a number of states have successfully applied for waivers when large numbers of their schools have been considered "in need of improvement."

The Best Tests

The quality of the tests and how the tests are used are the root causes of most of the controversy. Most experts agree that the best tests are ones that measure what students know in relation to what they are supposed to have learned. These tests are called "criterion referenced" or "standards based." Tests like these, especially when they include writing or problem solving, are useful for both teachers and parents to make sure students are on track for their grade level.

However, since these standards-based tests are more difficult to create and administer, some states use commercially produced national tests to measure student learning, such as the Stanford Achievement Test, ninth edition (Stanford 9 or SAT 9). These "off-the-shelf" tests are not designed to demonstrate whether students have learned specific skills or parts of the curriculum; rather, they only show how well students perform compared to others nationally (this is called "norm referenced"). Many states have made progress toward measuring specific skills and mastery of the curriculum by gradually adding standards-based tests that are given along with the norm-referenced tests.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

05/1/2012:
"Did you know that you can "opt-out' of taking the test. I've opted both my kids out now for years. I simply write a note to the teacher requesting that my child not take the test. Simple. I don't want my family participating. We are but one family. Now if everyone opted out,...hmmm yes, those test taking administrators would have a true revolt on their hands. That would change the system!! Simply: 'opt-out.' "
03/21/2012:
"This is a great article! As a campus test coordinator, I get lots of complaints from parents about state testing. This article really helps to explain why our students are required to take state assessments. "
10/7/2011:
"To get a real historical perspective on how we have come to test-driven education, read Diane Ravitch's book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Her website is at:http://www.dianeravitch.com/ To get a cross-cultural perspective and understand how and why countries, such as Finland, are doing so well DESPITE having NO STANDARDIZED testing and NO BUBBLE TESTING, go to: http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/2010/10/finlands-approach-to-educatio n.html And check out Pasi Sahlberg's blog: http://www.pasisahlberg.com/blog/ He is Finland's Education Minister, but writes in English for this blog. To understand thoroughly, how and why standardized tested does NOT help education, see this post on Parents Across America: http://parentsacrossamerica.org/2011/09/why-more-standardized-tests-wont-i mprove-education/ "
05/4/2011:
"My main concern with my son's (Redfield, AR) school is the pressure they put on these kids to pass this test so they are issued funding. My son is a not a good test taker and especially timed test. He is an A/B student but last Benchmark test taken he did not show proficient. So how is it he can be an A/B student but tell him if he does not pass this test he will be held back????"
04/5/2011:
"I thank that it is the wrong way for the school to get money. I makes it seem like the school only works toward the TCAPS just to get the money."
11/17/2010:
"Standardized tests that perform nationwide are a serious hindrance to education. We are creating automatons instead of children. The reason that physical education and art are being removed from the classrooms is because there is no time for them when all day is spent learning how to take the standardized exam. Also, another reason those subjects are being removed is there is no way to judge these subjects on a standardized exam. Bill"
11/2/2010:
"The kids have taken so many tests over their lifetime that many of them see no value in testing. My own son confessed to 'ABACADA'-ing the test because he said he couldn't 'get in trouble' for doing poorly. Only the school personnel are held accountable, not the person taking the test. It has become ridiculous."
04/9/2010:
"The schools have already become 'test-prep' factories.The students start in August reviewing the previous years' lessons. Learn a few new things in December,take 2 wks. off and forget what they have just learned. Learn new things until the middle or end of January, then start practicing for FCAT.All other is put on hold.After FCAT, they review what they learned in January. This year is fifth grade for my child and it has been the least productive for her. I am concerned about beginning Middle School. I will tutor her all summer to prepare her for what I feel she 'scanned' over in Fifth. If they don't get the lesson taught in one week, it doesn't matter to the teacher, they just go to a new subject the next.This averages their grade to a C whether they learned all the processes or not. It is sad for the children and the parents,as they are our future government officials and citizens. Their decisions in the future, will ultimately affect us all."
02/19/2010:
"I think schools need to do a better job implementing these tests. When I was in High School I never paid attention to the tests and it didn't hurt me educationally at all. We purposely did poorly on the test to make sure the school received less money. "
02/11/2010:
"I am glad I discovered this site and able to read everyone's comments regarding this hot topic across all household in America. I live in Miami, Florida and can honestly say that schools need to be held accountable and ensure that our kids are getting the best education possible, but it should not be based on our kids Test Score for them to continue being funded. Or, our kids not know what it is to have a childhood. Today's kids are growing up too fast because of the demands they are being given at such a young age all because of a TEST. What needs to happen is government and schools should invest more on teachers and giving them the necessary training and tools to do the job they are to do call TEACH! Not just prepare and teach our kids to take a TEST. I believe that if parents would support our teachers and partner up with them to ensure that our kids are learning the material they need to know in order to be ready when they are tested, it wouldn't be so overwhelming for ! all involved. Children should be tested based on there grade level and age. Kids should not have to feel what the meaning of 'STRESS' is, especially at such a young age. Our kids should be able to enjoy their childhood and not getting sick over TESTING and HOMEWORK. No wonder there are so many kids on ADD and HADD medication and so many kids killing other kids in schools, due to all the pressure they are being submitted to. All this in the na me of 'NCLB' test score so schools can get financial funding. But the worst part of all this is 'US' as parents that permit this to continue and not voice our concerns where it needs to be heard, in Congress. We are subjecting our children to this kind of life styles. The outcoming being, our kid's are growing up an environment where there is no family quality time,having health issues, and enjoying getting up to go to school, but instead hating it. We all need to speak up as a whole for the sake of our kids and there well being and p! ut a stop to this kind of pressure that the schools are puttin! g on our children. Let our voices be heard starting with our State Representative and Congress. At the end of the day WE THE PEOPLE are the one's that put them there and WE THE PEOPLE are the one's that can make sure they are removed from there as well. We have all this Social Media such as FACEBOOK, TWITTER, and MYSPACE, etc., let's use it to get the point across and get this NCLB removed. "
02/1/2010:
"I have to laugh at 'critics' who think that rote learning and testing leads to dumbing down of tests and ultimately children. This kind of convoluted thinking comes from those who are afraid of accountability. If children do not master knowledge of basic subjects, how can they develop critical thinking? You can only make decisions if you become familiar with any given subject. If you are not taught by their teachers (who should have knowledge about whatever they are teaching) how can you think critically? Children and their peers are in the classroom to learn from the teacher. If the teacher just allows them to discover things on their own, they are not going to be able to distinguish truth from fiction. Global warming is a prime example. Educators tell one side of the story, but now that we know that it is based on faulty science, are educators giving this information to their students? I think not. When children are given vital information about any subject, at so! me point they will make their own decision as to what they believe."
09/18/2009:
"My greatest problem with test is they only benefit schools financially and not the student who get those scores. Students are not placed based on those scores and schools are not reason for some of the great scores. Why should they benefit instead of the students who do the work? My daughter has always made above average scores and every year I have had to fight about placement. I've had idiot teachers tell me, 'she's nothing special', in spite of all of her academic achievements and they are many. Needless to say, I now homeschool where she thrives as an honors student."
05/28/2009:
"I think its very important for testing because it helps the teachers and students know what progress they have made throughout each year."
05/26/2009:
" Parents complain since years that there is too much homework. Beside spending the entire afternoon during the week 4.00-6.00 with learning for upcoming tests (5 per week!!!),homework and projects. The half Saturday will be spend on learning to catch up. As a parent it is frustrating to see how your child gets over overwhelmed with all the demand and no time for themselves. I have to admit, LIFE as a fourth grader sucks. The material they have to learn in 4th grade reminds me about my 7th grade, not only in one subject. There is no question about the quality of learning when the only goal is good grades for the test. The worst thing is that teachers don't spend enough time to learn during class. The homework sounds sometimes like this: Study Chapter 11 math until Thursday (23 pages)! After a test from page 1-6 failed by the entire class with an average F (64%) on Friday. This is not the first time this year. I wonder why I pay tuition, when I have to teach my child the material they should learn in school. The reason why so many high school kids end up on prescription pills is pretty obviously and I feel we come to a point where we as parents have to protect our kids from the school."
04/23/2009:
"i am tring to look up my sons grades on line but i dont know how so if you could please email me back and let me know where i need to go to look it up please!!!!!!!"
04/9/2009:
"Hello my name is James Baston my son is James as well. He is in third grade and being prepared for the NJ standardized state test. I am very concerned at the pace in which my son's school is pushing its students to achieve good scores. I believe that the are abandoning mastering the basics, and it is my opinion that they are moving way to fast for the third grade level. My son is a very happy child and loves school. Since Christmas the pressure as been turned on and I can see the changes in my son's attitude about school. And it all seems to point toward the preparation of these tests! To go from learning three and four digit multiplication in December to three digit division in February, and then tossing in estimating numbers when multiplying is confusing and counter productive. Mean while my wife and I are trying to get my son to master the logic of multiplication and division and throwing in estimating is beyond a third graders comprehension. I have talked to other parents who see this as frustrating and counter productive as well. Mean while he has to learn the human skeletal system and name all the bones (and be tested on them) along with 20 weekly spelling words. Are they kidding! I am glad they are challenging my child, and his grades are good. But this test is rushing them on things that take time to master. I know that in my state, good tests mean better funding. 'I believe this is the motive in my son’s school'. Teachers have told me 'that these tests are putting a lot pressure on them and their students to do well. I'm all for making the sure or schools are performing, but when you throw in the almighty dollar as the incentive then I think there are some ethical issues. Thank you James Baston "
04/2/2009:
"is it true that the tests must be submitted to the children and if a child finishes early, he must wait on the others to continue his tests? I was told that this was state mandated!That all children must start at the same time?? My child finishes early and he wants to go home, not sit for an hour until he recieves further instructions because the others are too slow! thanks, Mrs. Sosa"
08/28/2008:
"To everyone who is concerned about the testing of students...please contact your national and state legislators. Schools are trying the best they can to respond to national and state testing mandates, and to deal with the many and varied consequences of those mandates. We (I'm a teacher) have little or no voice in designing those mandates. We want to hear your concerns and suggestions for your child, but please also voice your concerns and suggestions to your national and state political leaders. Thank you."
05/5/2008:
"Accountability through Tests. I am a strong believer in accountability through tests. And this article by the GreatSchools Staff is very deep and takes a serious look at the issues. In fact I am an educator myself, Principal of an elementary or primary school in St. Lucia, and my focus for the last few years has been on National and school-based tests. Interestingly, I have been observing very closely the test results of P.S.221 Tossaint L'Ouverture, where my grandson attends. And I am hoping to meet the Principal this summer to discuss some of my observations which I do not wish to share through this medium. Criterion and Norm reference tests both have their place in evaluating the performnace of students. Both tests could enable parents and governments to get value for the money they invest in children's education. Criterion reference tests if well designed could point to areas of weakness or gaps in the knowledge or areas of the instructional programme which require a booster. It could help the class teacher to get 'back on track' in the school instructional programme. In essence, the criterion reference tests would define, underscore, reveal student, school performance situations and enable stake-holders to chart the way forward for student learners. Indeed, I have great difficulty in finding another way forward for performance assessment. Tests hold the key!"
04/29/2008:
"Your articles are so biased, and assume tests must be the measure of success for schools. You've done a disservice to readers who are looking for a balanced view of testing. There are people who actually come to your site and look at test scores alone as a way to measure the worth of a school. Your articles feed into such ignorance."
01/23/2008:
"I am a parent who currently has three children in private school. I was so disappointed that my oldest child was not obtaining the basic skills needed to be successful in the public environment. There was overcrowding, behavior issues, and changes in the leadership structure that made it uncomfortable for me to allow him to stay in this situation. Once moving him to private school, I realized that all those variables placed my son at a disadvantage to succeed. He has now been in private school for the last three years. I have seen tremendous growth and confidence come out of this child. He has made the honor roll after intense assistance from his educators. He is doing very well on national test as well as his siblings. It is expensive, but necessary for my wife and I to see that these children have the best opportunity to advance in life."
01/23/2008:
"As a grandmother with grandchildren in the TX public school system, I have been alarmed at what I see in the schools. I believe that these standardized tests have turned schools into test factories and nothing more. I think back to my days in school in the 60's and early 70's and we had such a different educational experience. It invited learning and a love of learning. Schools these days focus on the 'test topics' only, which takes away many educational opportunities for students at all grade levels. As a business person, I see it particularly with young people entering the work force. Many are at an elementary level when it comes to critical thinking, adapting to changing circumstances and knowledge of any subject matter not on a state mandated test. I did a paper on this in a college class in the early 90's; in which I was allowed to poll a high school class about things that any functioning adult should know. The answers were alarming. I sincerly hope that ther! e is a drastic change in our approach to education soon. I do not think we should be teaching to the test...but rather teaching to excel and throw the tests out the window. They do not work!"
01/22/2008:
"What is causing many parents/family members concern is the increasing sense that if a child is not up to grade expectations, certain teachers/school administrators are creating paper trails to indict the child and parent(s) to get themselves off the hook. This applies more to the 'disadvantage' children are concerned. If the child presents a threat to class standing, they start targeting either the child and or their parents as the cause, deflecting their lack of ability to teach such children. Certification is a far cry from qualified, yet this low standard is exactly what is going on. In some cases it's to the point that with very skillful manipulation, the child is allowed to be targeted by classmates as the reason their class is not in a higher standing. None of this is overt, but these age groups are easily directed. The other, and this I've yet to confirm, are financial incentives to teachers and administrators for high scores. This can only put targeted children at risk for any number of abuses, especially if they can get children to commit the offenses in their stead. I sincerely hope this 'monitary incentive' is just a rumor, it better be. How many could easily rasionalize any number of under handed tactics toward helpless children for that new car !"
01/15/2008:
"It is wonderful to have a site like GreatSchools.org and I am following the reviews on state testing closely. My ten year old has exciting grades in school during the year, A's and B's on his report cards; however, he continually fails on the state tests. What do I do? I am mighty concerned about his high school exit exam, which is a few years off, but currently required here in California to graduate."
04/2/2007:
"I am so glad I found this site! We just relocated and therefore my children transferred from private to public school, 3rd and 6th grade, and we are losing our minds! Everything you all are writing about is totally true. I have already pulled my oldest and he is now homeschooled. My third grader is hanging in there, but soon to be homeschooled too-I am a single parent and full time student-so we are working on the logistics. I just cannot believe how public school pushes children, expecting them to be little adults, while taking away every creative vice they have! OH-and my children go 'Great Schools' in 'one of best places to live, with the most help for children/youth'. I could go on and on... Thank you for showing me I am not alone, and not crazy, which is what the school implies I am when I ask for further accommodations for my daughter who is totally stressed out and tells me her school is a jail. "
03/30/2007:
"I understand why the state feels they need to test but I think that it stops the teaching. My sons education stopped in third grade. From that moment on it's been practice booklets. My son can look at the intro to any test book and tell you what it says before reading it. I'd rather he know the summary of a good book. I AM AGAINST TESTING "
03/27/2007:
"If all the schools in our district are below average, what can we do?"
01/2/2007:
"Could we create a new second startand test for Dyslexics? For when I have taken city, state educational test I will score at best a 70 grade, and even when I took State, City and Fed, jobs tests my best grade is still a 70 grade not euongh to be calledfrom the job list. With all that we now know about Dyslexics, the people that we are and the way that we learn can't something be done to equal the terms?"
12/14/2006:
"I feel that the main thing that needs to change is stop all the focus on testing and start focusing more on national standards. What evry child should know by each grade. I feel that there is too much range in what a first grader in PA knows and what a first grader in CA knows. National standards should be set for all grades and all states. I also feel that the children should learn with other children who are equal to them intellictually. I agree that if a child is with a group of advanced childeren and can't keep up he will be lost justlike a child who is advanced will become bored and uninterested. Something definately needs to change there is way to much pressure on students teachers and parents over these tests. I could go on and on but until the NCLB law is modified or rectified I fear that as a nation we are in for lot of problems."
12/1/2006:
"Here in New York State My son who is in 5th grade took the 4th grade ela in January. I just received his scores in November eleven months later! My son is in the honors program and is a smart kid but because the school he gos to has all the at risk kids and changeled children my son needs to receive a very high almost perfect score to make up for the others. We do prep most of the day and 1 day a week we stay after school for an hour and a half.Oh and on those days we still have about two hours worth of homework. If I don't allow my child to stay after school on that day he is not allowed to be on the safty patrol student council or any after school activity they punish the good kids who work hard all year because of these test. It is a shame that percentages were out on these kids in September and I got his score in November! To prove a point this year all 24 students in the 5th grade honors program will sign there name on the paper and sit there quietly and not answer 1 q! uestion on this test. We are tired of all these test. My son scored a 4 on the ela and the ema and he took a science on last year and got a 4. I NEVER received a print out of his test telling me his percentages all i got was his first report card an it said what he got. My son is stressed out he use to love school till all this came about and I am thinking about pulling him out of the honors program just because of the pressure that is put on him it is not right."
12/1/2006:
"I spend a great deal of time in my children's classsrooom and can attest to the fact that the result of high-stakes testing has been rote, worksheet after worksheet drils throughout the day. I no longer see project-oriented activities or much in the way of hands-on science. The majority of the schools in my district have no art or music programs--only 2 out of 30+ schools. All children are not strong visual learners, yet the testing focuses ONLY on visual ability. When parents cannot afford the time or money to take children to museums, expose them to the arts, and travel even short jaunts away from town, the children do not have the chance to develop an awareness and appreciation for the earth, history, arts, etc. High-stakes testing has also limited the amount of time children spend away from the classroom by limiting the number of field trips opportunities. >From my own observations I do not see creativity in writing or in any other aspect in my children's classrooms. We need to change the tide and place emphasis not on testing, but on other providing additional project-oriented and creative assessments. I honestly wish that the Great Schools site would also include other programs offered by schools. Are there schools in our districts that may offer music lessons, band, extra-curricular activities, clubs, or art? Those are the resources that I'd hoped to find on Great School's Site."
11/30/2006:
"Here in Central Florida, schools we had a drop in the number of students showing up for public school....Where have all the students gone? Far from FCAT, that's where. Private school enrollments are booming and homeschooling is being considered by many. I took my children out of public schools by second grade. They had been exposed to FCAT and almost weekly testing from the moment they entered kindergarten. I homeschooled for a year (the kids loved it and learned volumes....they learned to actually like reading and found out learning could actually be FUN). They attend a charter school now that does NOT 'teach to the test', but rather has an old-fashioned academically challenging curriculum and surprise, surprise.....almost yearly 100% of this school's students pass the FCAT with no problems and no stress. It is possible to have standardized testing without teaching to the test, but not with the current 'high stakes' for students and teachers alike!! Get rid of the r! igid expectations and the reward system currently in place.....it creates an artificial environment in our schools and the students are the ones who miss out on the wonders and excitement of WANTING to know something and LEARNING HOW to find out for themselves how, why, etc....instead of being spoonfed facts."
09/27/2006:
"I must say that I believe the focus of education, on all levels, especially with NCLB, have it's emphasis, predominatley on test scores. Personally, back in 84, when I graduated from High School, being a 'high risk' student, as defined by modern day variables, (i.e divorce family, minority, low-income, abused, neglected etc. . ), I scored a 12 on my ACT. At that time, there was no admission test criteria. I wouldn't have been able to attend college, with today's standards. My parents didn't have the money, they told me, although that was not the truth. They wouldn't co-sign a loan for me, I had to work 2 jobs in the summer and lastly, was initally denied a GSL loan. Academically, my mom said that I wasn't college material, per se, not good grades etc. . Ultimately, with determination, faith in my higher power and a goal, I completed both my BSW and MSW with honors at the University of Kansas. To make a long story short, what I'm trying to say is that there is more to! a child's success than what grades he/she recieves from a test. There so much more in children. I believe that they want to have faith and just have someone say, 'you're going to be ok and you can do anything.' Well, that's all I have to say about that. Carry On! Adam from Salina, KS (The Point of Known Return)."
09/25/2006:
"HOLA ESTOY MPEZANDO A DOCUMENTARME PARA SABER QUE NECESITO PARA METER A MIS HIJOS EN LA ESCUELA, A QUE ESCUELA, Y PORQUE... PUES EN POCO TIEMPO REGRESARE A LOS USA PARA SEGUIR MI VIDA JUNTO CON ELLOS... MI INTERESES SON CALIDAD DE ENSEÑANZA, NO CANTIDAD. EDUCACION CON VALORES POR SU PERSONA, POR LA FAMILIA, Y POR LA GENTE ALREDEDOR, EXCELENTES BASES Y FUNDAMENTOS PARA HACER DE ELLOS PERSONAS CULTAS, DE BIEN, PROFESIONISTAS Y CON GRAN FUTURO, TODOS LOS DIAS. PERSONAS QUE GENEREN SIEMPRE POSITIVIDAD EN CADA UNA DE SUS TAREAS A DESARROLLAR Y EN LOS LUGARES DONDE SE DESEMPEÑEN... SO; MY KIDS ARE 2 YEARS OLD, AND 11 MONTHS, WILL BE THERE IN FEW MONTHS... ALWAYS THE BEST FOR THEM... MY NAME: MANELLY"
09/5/2006:
"Standardized tests have been around since I was in school 20 years ago, however, we were not put under the pressure to 'pass' these tests that kids are today. I know of 3rd graders with ulcers because they fear 'failing' this test and having to repeat the grade level even if they are A-B students. I feel that instead of creating a thirst for knowledge in children, teachers are forced to teach students how to pass the tests and to look for the 'trick' questions. Trust me, kids still fall through the cracks and not just because they are minority. My son tested as having a higher than average IQ but was struggling in school due to poor writing skills and being borderline dyslexic. The school could not/would not provide extra help for him 'because there were other students who had worse problems.' Rather than force the issue and create more stress, we chose to homeschool. He has done tremendously better this year, his confidence and self esteem are up, and he even took a st! andardized test to be sure we were on track but because it was not a 'pass or fail' test, he did not feel pressured and did very well. If states and districts would get back to the business of letting teachers create a desire for learning in each student (isn't that a novel idea) instead of having to teach them how to pass a certain test so the district can get their money, then we may yet have hope for future generations to be independent thinkers and be able to think outside the box instead of having information spoon fed to them. Testing should be for the purpose of determining if a student understands and has learned the concept being taught -- not for the purpose of determining a budget. It's also sad that my 16 year old, who is very social and does well academically, has asked to also be homeschooled because there is 'too much drama and stress to concentrate on learning and the teachers don't care anyway.' So much for high school years being the best part of being ! young."
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