Testing has become quite controversial in education. We often hear about students’ test scores or teachers reporting test results. Then in social groups, you might experience people discussing that there is too much testing imposed on our children in schools. Is there a misconception?
Depending on your generation and where you attended school, perspectives on student testing have probably changed dramatically. Testing in schools in the past was most often for determining grades in classes over material taught by the instructor. Often those tests were teacher-developed or may have come with the curriculum covering the information taught during the instruction. As we have moved to a more mobile society we have come to expect students to learn the same material whether in a little country town or a large city, no matter what geographical location education looks different than 25 years ago. Publishers created curricula for all subjects along with creating tests to ensure that all students receive the same instruction.
Testing in education has changed over the years and we have also been able to learn more about how our brains learn and develop, thanks to sciences. We have learned that waiting for a student and allowing additional time for them to catch up may not be the best and may make it even harder for the child to learn because of what we now know about brain development. Borrowing from the sciences and using the scientific process of gaining a baseline, applying theory and then checking for change means education takes a different path.
In education, if the child is not showing understanding we are now able to provide instruction at their level and check for understanding by monitoring, which is often referred to as testing. If the child understands the concept, they are ready to move on; if not, some reteaching is necessary. Past practice often was to assume students understood it because we taught it to the whole group or they will catch up — and some will, but many don’t and fall behind. This is true in both math and reading. Moving on and hoping in time they will catch up is more of a myth than reality.
Back in the 1970s, publishers were creating reading materials as fast as they could. Then they set out to show how their programs were superior to teacher-based programs. These curricula provided instructional materials along with assessments. During the 1980s, studies were completed showing when teachers used and followed their programs, students scored higher. They took their results to the U.S. Department of Education getting them to sign off that teachers needed to follow the programs with fidelity.
We have all experienced changes in the medical field and the impact on our health and lives. Look at diabetes for example. Twenty years ago the way we tested sugar levels is much different than today. It has been life-changing for many. Schools that have embraced using data to inform education rather than teaching what a teacher feels is best have experienced greater student learning. There are not many people who would want the doctors to treat their cancer as they did 40 years ago. The same should be true with how we educate our youth.
Students are assessed more in today’s schools than in the past. In the younger grades, the short screeners used can determine if the student knows the skill or needs additional support and are usually less than 10 minutes. As a teacher, having to screen each student can seem overwhelming and feel like all they do is test, but the students are not spending all that time testing. The teacher can use that information to adjust their lessons to give additional instruction on skills a student might be struggling with within the curriculum. This then allows the student not to fall behind and keeps their skills moving forward, whereas in the past students often fell so far behind it was hard for them to catch up with their classmates.
Scott Smith is a Umatilla County educator with 40-plus years of experience. He taught at McNary Heights Elementary School and then for Eastern Oregon University in its teacher education program at Blue Mountain Community College. He serves on the Decoding Dyslexia Oregon board as its parent/teacher liaison.