Our children are spending much of their time in school preparing for and taking computer-based, standardized tests in October. These tests are the NECAPs — New England Common Assessment Program tests — that are used for the school accountability measures required by the federal government program No Child Left Behind. It requires that all of our children in grades three through eight and 11 be tested annually.
The testing schedule will disrupt school schedules for at least two weeks with three sections of reading, three sections of math, and two sections of writing for some grades. Each section is two-and-a-half hours long. And this is after many of our children have already taken the Northwest Evaluation Association diagnostic tests in September that they will take again in January and March. Other districts might add to this the AIMSweb test, as well as classroom-specific testing.
What does this testing cost us financially as taxpayers, instructionally as teachers, and emotionally as parents and students? And what do we get in return for these costs?
The educational testing and support industry is valued at $15.5 billion nationally. The educational testing industry has seen over 20-percent growth in the past five years at the same time that state level spending of K-12 education in Maine has declined 7.3 percent between 2008 and 2013.
In addition to the cost of the tests themselves is all of the instructional time in schools lost for learning. If schools test for two weeks out of the average 40 school weeks per year, that’s a cost of $100 million out of the approximately $2 billion local and state dollars spent on public education each year.
Teachers and education reporters talk about the narrowing of the curriculum to fit the test. In the way kids speak, it means families will hear with an exasperated sigh, “We’re doing test prep again,” as the response to the familiar question, “What did you do in school today?”
This means that kids have spent some of their school day reading passages and selecting a multiple choice answer and solving isolated math problems that cover a wide range of disconnected skills. It means that kids are not engaged in interesting questions and learning that could be connected to their lives and communities.
As parents and families, we know we have to be the cheerleaders to rouse our kids from bed and send them off to spend their school day sitting in front of a computer screen, taking the test that will often leave them feeling frustrated, discouraged and a wreck emotionally when they come home.
What do we get for this financial, instructional and emotional investment?
We get our child’s test scores sometime in the spring. Our schools get a simplistic letter grade that usually tells us how much poverty there is in our community. More and more of our children and schools are told that they are failing.
Potentially, we as communities can rally together to use these test score results to advocate for programs and policies that will move to close opportunity gaps in our children’s education. These gaps include access to afterschool and summer-school programs, quality teachers who have time to plan and coordinate curriculum, and programs to engage students including art, music, vocational education, technology and libraries. Community-based opportunities include access to nutrition programs and health care to help ensure that children aren’t missing school for health issues.
Or we as parents can opt our children out of the testing as a civil protest of how standards testing is distorting our public schools. The national “opt out of standardized testing” movement is growing from Seattle to Texas and New York.
The costs for these standardized tests are high — financially, instructionally and emotionally. We need to decide as a society and as individuals whether those costs are worth the returns and then work to change policies or opt out.
Flynn Ross is associate professor of teacher education and coordinator of the Portland Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN.