Time to restructure end-of-year student testing?

Kelly McCutchen's picture

Across Georgia, tension is in the air as 1.6 million students endure the annual ritual of end-of-year testing. Nervous students, parents and teachers feel the pressure: The efforts of an entire year hinge upon the performance at this one point in time.  

Without a doubt, testing has a vital and necessary role in education. Why else would private schools test their students even though it is not mandated? When used appropriately, testing analyzes strengths and weaknesses, gaps in knowledge and progress toward the ultimate goal of graduation and success. In a perfect world, the results inform educators who then use that information to improve how they teach.  

The current testing regime, however, isn’t living up to its potential. It has become counter-productive rather than effective as a diagnostic tool.

If the ultimate goal is to help our teachers prepare students for graduation, Georgia is falling far short: Our graduation rates consistently fall near the bottom of the barrel.  

High-stakes testing creates pressure to cheat, as has been recently witnessed in our state. There is also pressure to dumb down the test to improve scores. 

Georgia test results indicate a high percentage of our students are proficient in reading and math. More rigorous national tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, however, show much lower levels of proficiency. Georgia’s gap, in fact, is the largest in the nation. This false sense of achievement is a great disservice to students and parents. 

As an indicator of school quality, even parents value test scores less than one would think, according to a recent study by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. In fact, Georgia parents view student safety, class size, classroom discipline, high school completion and post-secondary success as more important than standardized test scores. 

If you have children or spend much time around them, you know that every child is unique. They learn at different speeds and in different ways. They may excel in some subjects and struggle in others.  

Under the current one-size-fits-all model, students are forced to conform to the model instead of the model being personalized for the student. Teachers get a fixed amount of time to teach each course and, except in highly unusual circumstances, students are moved forward to the next course even if they failed to master much of the material.  

The end-of-year model of testing students is like an autopsy – we get the results after it’s too late to do anything about it. 

A more effective strategy, mastery-based learning, would turn this model on its head. Rather than time being constant and learning variable, the learning becomes constant for each child and time becomes the variable. This requires a simple but significant change in testing.  

The test questions can remain the same. But these long, cumulative end-of-year tests must be restructured, broken up into shorter tests that are available on demand throughout the year – as students are ready for them. Just as End-of-Course Tests have replaced final exams for many high school courses in Georgia, these smaller tests could replace existing teacher-designed tests based on smaller units of material. 

The approach is already being used in New Hampshire and in many “blended learning” schools across the country. End-of-year tests could still be given to serve as a benchmark, but much less frequently. 

Georgia has an opportunity to truly personalize education by eliminating cookie-cutter tests that prioritize the calendar over the children. Enabling students to move at their individual pace will allow teachers the flexibility to fill in knowledge gaps and free up teaching time from test preparation. The approach will produce the results that strong accountability systems promised.

[Kelly McCutchen is president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]

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