Massachusetts works hard for its test scores. Just this week, the state ranked first in the country in student performance on a national standardized test, and Boston scored high among large cities. Meanwhile, President Obama called for limiting the amount of time students spend taking tests, urging that tests have become too much of a focus in education. Over the weekend, President Barack Obama released a Facebook video, in which he said he hears from parents "who, rightly, worry about too much testing, and from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning, both for them and for the students. I want to fix that."
The president told the Education Department to ensure kids only take high-quality tests, cap test-taking time at 2 percent of total classroom time, and eliminate unnecessary test prep. Former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville agrees. He joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio to discuss our test-obsessed system. “We’re spending too much time measuring progress and not enough time making progress,” Reville said. “Testing is really a diagnostic instrument, it’s not a strategy for improving student learning.”
According to Reville, most of the tests students take in school aren’t federally mandated, but instead exist because of pressure on individual school systems, and a pressure on teachers to check in on progress. “The federal government, though No Child Left Behind, mandates annual testing for grades 3-9, and once in high school,” Reville said. “There is a fairly modest amount of testing associated with that. What a lot of schools are doing is practice testing; other kinds of tests that get students in the habit of taking and performing under testing conditions, or give feedback to teachers on what it is that children know and are able to do at various moments, so teachers can redefine their teaching.”
As to whether we actually need all these tests? Of course we could get by with one national test and one local test,” Reville said. “There are other jurisdictions, like Finland, for example, that uses almost no standardized testing whatsoever and has some of the highest results in the world.”
President Obama has called for a limit on test-taking time to 2 percent of total classroom time. In Massachusetts, students spend an average of 2.2 percent of their classroom time taking and preparing for tests. “It’s a relatively modest reduction,” Reville said. “I think the president was responding, as the nation’s top elected official, to increasing concern being expressed by parents and students that this is too much. You hear loud voices coming from teachers and students that it’s gone too far, it’s gone overboard.”
Paul Reville is the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also runs the Education Redesign lab. To hear more from his interview, click on the audio link above.