The Center on Education Policy recently surveyed a nationally representative sample of public school teachers to learn more about their perspectives on the teaching profession, standards, testing and teacher evaluation. Earlier this month, the group published the results in a report titled “Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices.” The findings provide valuable insight into the views of public school teachers on a number of key policy issues, particularly standardized testing.
While a plurality of teachers reported spending less than a week administering state- and district-mandated tests, survey respondents said that preparing students for those tests consumes a disproportionate share of instructional time.
Overall, a majority of teachers surveyed thought that they spent too much time preparing students for mandated assessments. More than half of the teachers estimated that they spent more than two weeks on test preparation for district-mandated tests alone. Around 57 percent stated that they spent more than two weeks preparing students for state-mandated tests.
The drain on instructional time is one reason why 8 out of 10 respondents maintained that public school students spent too much time taking mandated standardized tests. That does not mean, however, that teachers want to abandon testing altogether. Absolutely not.
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When asked whether tests should be eliminated, reduced or kept, educators overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly favored keeping quizzes and tests that they or their colleagues created. At the same time, they wanted to reduce the frequency and length of state- and district-mandated tests.
Indeed, less than one-third of teachers believed that states should eliminate testing. An even smaller percentage thought that districts should drop their testing programs.
The bottom line is that most educators appear to favor test-based accountability. But classroom teachers also want to strike a balance between preparing students for testing mandated “from above” and those created within the school.
Re-establishing this balance was one of the reasons why Gov. Pat McCrory led an effort to examine North Carolina’s end-of-grade and end-of-course testing program. In 2013, McCrory called on the N.C. State Board of Education to examine the state’s testing requirements.
Months later, the board appointed nearly two dozen members to the Task Force on Summative Assessment. State Board member Buddy Collins chaired the group, which included superintendents, principals, teachers, testing experts, school board members, parents and business professionals. They concluded their work nearly a year ago.
Following the task force’s recommendations, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction initiated an innovative pilot program to determine if through-course or so-called “interim assessments” given to elementary and middle school students offer a better approach than requiring students to take one test at the end of the school year – that is, a “summative assessment.”
So far, early pilot program results show promise. If lawmakers and education officials choose to pursue this testing model statewide, my hope is that they consider a broad range of options. I suspect they would find that an independent, national test of student performance is a superior alternative to tests currently authored, field-tested, administered and analyzed by DPI.
The Summative Assessment task force also urged the State Board of Education to examine testing options for high school students. Currently, high school students take ACT tests to determine whether they are career- and college-ready. State education officials should immediately begin an open review of all assessment options. After careful consideration of available testing programs, they may find something that better serves North Carolina’s teachers and test-takers.
The testing task force started the discussion, but the Center on Education Policy survey suggests that we need it to continue. It is time to ask some tough questions about testing in North Carolina.
Do testing and test preparation consume an unreasonable amount of instructional time? Are there practical ways to reduce testing? Do state- and district-mandated tests complement or conflict with teacher-created assessments and one another? Could adoption of an alternative testing program address teachers’ valid concerns? In sum, what should North Carolina’s testing environment look like?
Let’s engage in a sustained dialogue with teachers, administrators, school boards, parents, students, elected officials and other stakeholders to answer those questions and pose others.
Terry Stoops is director of research and education studies for the John Locke Foundation.