Fewer tests help, but also stop grading schools

NC Superintendent Mark Johnson wants to reduce the stress of too many standardized tests, but op-ed writer Justin Parmenter says Johnson also needs to end the grading of schools based on those tests. (News & Observer file photo)
NC Superintendent Mark Johnson wants to reduce the stress of too many standardized tests, but op-ed writer Justin Parmenter says Johnson also needs to end the grading of schools based on those tests. (News & Observer file photo)

This week I administered a long, multiple choice standardized reading test in my 7th grade Language Arts classes. It was the second of three such assessments throughout the year which are intended to measure student growth before the End Of Grade test in May. As always, student reactions ranged from debilitating levels of anxiety to a profound lack of engagement--I had to wake up one student three times during the test. In general, it was the exact opposite of how I want evidence of learning in my classroom to look.

In the middle of the test, an email from NC Superintendent Mark Johnson announcing changes in high-stakes standardized testing practices hit my inbox. In the message, Johnson spoke of the harmful stress caused by our current assessment approach and the counterproductive testing culture that has developed over the last decade. He went on to list a number of nebulous changes which will be rolled out this school year, including reducing the number of questions on tests, reducing the length of tests, and reducing stress at schools around testing time.

Oddly, the NC Department of Public Instruction’s official testing program update page contains no mention of the changes whatsoever (although Johnson’s campaign website posted a video of him talking about the topic on Spectrum News). In a Raleigh News and Observer piece entitled “Testing in NC schools could get less stressful,” DPI spokesman Drew Elliot offered a little more detail, explaining that EOG tests would get shorter, lasting two hours instead of three, and that students may be permitted to leave the room once they’ve completed their test.

It’s important for us to have conversations about the negative impact our testing culture has on children, and I appreciate the fact that those conversations have begun. However, the changes proposed by Superintendent Johnson largely ignore the real problem. The problem is in the stakes.

North Carolina’s standardized testing culture is driven by state policies enacted under the Republican supermajority which award letter grades to schools based on scores, determine principal salaries and sizeable teacher bonuses through test results, and retain third graders who can’t pass the test (nearly 20,000 last year). It’s rooted in federal initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in which the ultimate measure of professional and academic success is a multiple choice test score.

These policies result in tremendous pressure on school leaders and classroom teachers. That pressure is passed on to students in the form of developmentally inappropriate, dull and repetitive learning activities in which the real goal is not authentic learning but getting the desired score.

This year I’ve witnessed firsthand the impact of our testing culture on my third grade daughter. Too much of her class time is taken up by long multiple choice assessments. Her anxiety is more than any eight year old should be asked to shoulder, and opportunities for exploring her own interests and using her imagination--the very things that can help schools to create lifelong learners--are few and far between. I know she is in for a long spring of test prep with her first End Of Grade tests on the horizon. How much of a difference does it really make if that test lasts two hours instead of three?

If our state superintendent is serious about changing our harmful testing culture, he must press state legislators for changes in the policies that are actually causing that culture. He needs to advocate for policies which will afford teachers the time and trust to implement frequent, low-stakes activities for measuring student learning in ways that are healthy and motivational. Until Mark Johnson becomes willing to lower the stakes, what he calls “revolutionary” reforms will, in reality, change very little for our teachers and students.

Justin Parmenter is a 7th grade English teacher at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte.