Reporting school results has brought test mania to Australia’s schools. Hundreds of thousands of students spend the first part of the school year practicing for the NAPLAN tests in May. Many schools also make students in the non-tested years practice for the tests. It even starts in Year 1 in some schools.
A timely reminder about the dangers of endless practicing for standardised tests came from an unlikely source last month. The Republican-appointed commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, Robert Scott, attacked the testing mania in Texas schools as a “perversion” of what a quality education should be. He said that too many schools over-prepare for tests by cramming kids.
He also said that the assessment and accountability regime in the United States is a “military-industrial complex” where there are billions of dollars at stake. Testing is a huge business in the US and companies are scrambling to convert the numerous state markets in testing products into a national market through national education standards and a national core curriculum.
Scott’s remarks were in response to questions from members of the Texas state board of education. He repeated them at a conference of school administrators a few days later.
Republican board member George Clayton, a Dallas English teacher, complained to the commissioner that some schools have become little more than testing centres, offering mini-exams every two weeks to prepare for full, end-of-the-year standardized tests.
“Let’s be truthful about what’s happening in the schools, that testing has taken over the schools. That’s all we do, is test, and prepare for tests, make an assessment, look at the data, prepare another test, from August till the end of the school year.”
While the actual number of state tests required is few, schools have responded by making students to do thousands of tests, Clayton said:
“So if you want to look at all of the tests and get a true picture, you’re looking at thousands of tests inside the schools until many of the schools have become nothing but testing centres. So we cannot, I think, close our eyes to the fact that standardized testing has that kind of effect on education.”
Scott responded by saying “that is a perversion of what is intended” and said it was “drill and kill” teaching.
“Simply regurgitating a mini-TAKS test or a mini-STAAR test every two weeks I don’t believe is going to be ultimately effective and ultimately provide a quality education.
“What we’ve done in the past decade, is we’ve doubled down on the test every couple of years, and used it for more and more things, to make it the end-all, be-all. … You’ve reached a point now of having this one thing that the entire system is dependent upon. It is the heart of the vampire, so to speak.
“I’ve been a proponent of standardized testing, for some things, and I want to continue to use it, for some things. But we have overemphasized it, and even if we haven’t overemphasized it specifically at the state level, the perception out there is that it is the end-all, be-all, and that is causing behaviour in many cases, to compound upon itself, and even if that’s not the intent at the state level, that’s reality.”
Scott added that while simply spending a year teaching for standardized tests “won’t work” and doesn’t improve students’ scores, it is hard for state officials to legislate against such behaviour, which has only been encouraged by how much credence Texas now gives to test results.
“We tend to focus on testing because it is, as you say, the bottom line. We need to try to figure out a system where that is not just the bottom line, it is one piece of the bottom line, and that everything else that happens during a school year is factored into that equation.”
He said that the goal was to develop an accountability system that doesn’t just look at a few core academic areas but how to recognize and reward a school district with, for example, a quality fine arts program or a quality career and tech program.