'Tis the Season for Testing

This week is the first of three consecutive weeks of state testing for my students. Just the other day, one of my students asked how well I did on the state test when I was in high school. I was taken aback by his question, and it caused me to reflect on his school career. He has been tested his whole life, so naturally he assumes that testing has always been there. When I told him that state testing didn’t exist when I was in high school, and that I only had to take the ACT and semester exams, he asked, “Well then why do we have to take so many tests?”

It’s been a long, windy road to get to where we are today. Many years ago when statewide testing didn’t exist there were gigantic, Grand-Canyon-sized disparities between the states in terms of the quality of K-12 education. Tennessee was among the worst states in K-12 education in the country, though we claimed to have been much better than we were. In short, Tennessee (along with many other states) was found guilty of false advertising.

Around the same time, President George W. Bush was elected and No Child Left Behind was passed. NCLB opened the door for state testing. Because the education system acted unprofessionally due to the false advertising, the federal government felt the necessity to step in and do something about it. In Tennessee, that led to the creation of Gateway testing.

Unfortunately, the Gateway test was entirely too easy to pass. Other states who were poorly educating their students had similarly easy tests, and, once again, a facade of quality education was created. Once this was discovered, Tennessee created a more difficult test, called the End-of-Course exam. This seemed to temporarily solve the problem; however, after a few years, teachers and students learned how to game the solely multiple-choice test. From that, a new problem was discovered: States across the country realized that their standards were too easy.

A consortium of states got together and brainstormed the idea of raising their standards and increasing the difficulty of the courses from kindergarten through 12th grade. Tennessee was one of the leaders in this consortium that eventually led to the creation of the Common Core State Standards. After seeing the states work together on this initiative, the federal government created incentives in the form of Race to the Top grants to encourage them to move forward and use these more difficult standards.

Clearly, the shift to Common Core has been a positive one. I am watching what my two daughters are learning in school at the elementary and middle school levels, and I’m looking forward to those students eventually making it to high school. They are more prepared to think deeply and critically--leading traits that future employers look for in their job seekers. In the meantime, the current group of students is struggling mightily.

These students have been through multiple iterations of higher standards and increasingly more difficult state tests, culminating with TNReady. This test is more aligned with the standards than EOCs, but it’s also unproven and substantially longer. This year’s juniors will spend almost ten hours testing in English, math, science, and history. That’s not counting the time they will spend taking Advanced Placement and dual-credit exams, nor does it count the nearly four hours to take the ACT.

Why will my high school juniors have to take tests for hours on end, lasting almost three weeks? Because years ago when they first began school--several regimes before Dr. McQueen’s forward-thinking group--TDOE failed them. Now, testing companies are reaping billions of dollars from designing and executing standardized tests, and I don’t foresee it ending any time in the near future. The only way out of this predicament is through legislation, and there are some bills in the Tennessee legislature right now that would reduce testing time or even eliminate the TNReady test altogether. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that this isn’t it.