Minnesota's testing regimen not worth cost

  • Article by: KATHERINE KOCH-LAVEEN
  • Updated: April 23, 2013 - 8:45 PM

A former Minnesota teacher of the year weighs in on testing debate.

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The spring season outside may have eluded us. But indoors, in every classroom of 52,867 ­Minnesota public schools, testing season is in full bloom.

More than 840,000 students will be interrupting their coursework to prepare specifically for testing. For several hours over the course of several days, classroom subject-matter instruction will not be available to students.

Additional staff will be hired, and regular school faculty and staff will be diverted from providing learning opportunities to distribute, proctor, collect, and mail tests. Administrators at the school and district level must be hired to manage the testing programs. Districts will spend tens of thousands of scarce education dollars to support the testing process.

That’s right, folks: Testing is not free. It’s time to reevaluate the testing program in terms of student learning. Are all the funds that are removed from the classroom and devoted to testing enhancing students’ opportunities to learn?

The testing program needs to be held accountable for its failures. Testing has not erased the achievement gap. Is removing students from classrooms to test and diverting instructional dollars to testing the best way to close that gap?

Consider the following story about a hog farmer. Her resources were limited, and her profit margin was thin. The farmer reasoned that one way to improve her profit margin was to get hogs to the optimum size and to market more quickly. She decided to establish weekly weight targets and chart the hogs’ growth.

At first she used a tape measure to determine the girth of each hog and convert that finding into weight. She measured the hogs weekly and recorded the results. The hogs did not seem to be meeting their growth targets, so the farmer used some of her feed money to purchase an animal scale. Now she weighed the hogs every other day. She noted that the hogs’ growth was still not on target. Next, the farmer used most of her remaining funds to buy a digital scale that could weigh accurately to the ounce. She weighed the hogs daily and now had extremely detailed information about the hogs’ rate of gain, but the rate was still inadequate.

The farmer was at a loss to explain these results. Despite spending all her resources on the best technology to measure the hogs, weight targets were not realized. If the farmer had spent her feed money to buy additional feed for the hogs instead of buying measurement technology, perhaps the hogs would have met targets.

So it is with testing. We should be spending the scarce educational dollars in the classroom instead of just trying to measure results.

Analysis of student achievement from statewide testing arrives months later, when the student is with a different teacher. So why insist that the testing program provides valuable information for teachers? Testing companies establish testing dates that take place with only 80 percent of the school year completed. Despite the inappropriate dates, private testing companies cannot get results back to school in a timely fashion.

In addition, “achievement testing” on a statewide basis is redundant. Classroom evaluation of student achievement already happens for free. Classroom teachers assess student learning on an individual basis daily and weekly, using class discussions, quizzes, formative assessments, speeches, video production, essays and many more modes.

There is no evidence that testing has improved the achievement of any student or has improved graduation rates. However, there is much evidence that students, at risk academically or otherwise fragile, just drop out of school, lowering their achievement.

Minnesota has had the highest ACT college-entrance test scores in the nation for most of the last 20 years, and we now have the greatest diversity of students taking the ACT. We must be doing something right in public schools. These tests are taken outside of school with proctors paid directly by testing companies.

Let’s put the testing money back into the classroom.

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Katherine Koch-Laveen, of Rosemount, is a chemistry teacher. She was Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 2000-01.

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