Assessment Overload: The hidden costs of standardized testing

Number of standardized tests public-school students take exploded in past decade

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comMarch 30, 2014 

How many standardized tests will a student take from the time he or she enters kindergarten through high school graduation?

A. 30 to 39

B. 40 to 49

C. 50 to 59

D. More than 60

The answer: D

And that number does not include optional assessments for students, like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests, or college boards such as the ACT and SAT. Factor in those, and the number could jump to nearly 100 tests -- or more than 240 hours -- in a student's pre-college academic career.

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How we arrived at the numbers

It wasn't always that way.

For example, in the 2000-01 school year, Beaufort County public-school students could expect to take 10 to 20 standardized tests before graduation.

"When I went through school, the only tests that I remember taking, other than class tests, were the IQ test, maybe one or two achievement tests and the SAT, but testing was very rare," said state Education Oversight Committee chairman David Whittemore, who went to school in Pickens County. "But it's grown on its own."

What changed?

"Each time a different law is created regarding education, there is a different assessment attached to it," Whittemore said.

For at least two reasons, the number of standardized tests rose sharply after the federal No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001.

First, the law mandated annual assessments in all 50 states as an accountability system. Second, some states began to request waivers from various requirements of the law -- often to try new education theories -- but many of those alternatives were accompanied by a new test to measure their effectiveness.

Now students are taking high-pressure tests long before college -- often as early as kindergarten.

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Video: Building enthusiasm: 'Let the data drive what you teach'

There is always something to prepare for. Building enthusiasm, showing understanding and creating meaning in the test. What is the test all about? Will the test show the student where to learn more? Can it do this in a timely manner? "Let the data drive what you teach."

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The prevalence of standardized testing has largely coincided with growing demands for greater accountability and data-driven decision-making about the kinds of programs and curriculum schools use. Test scores can impart objectivity to the aim of accountability and give empirical evidence on which to base decisions, some have argued.

This partly explains why many educators see the harmful side effects of assessment overload but have had little success in beating them back. Though there's a general sense that students take too many standardized tests, some of the tests can be useful to teachers.

"There can be too much testing, especially if teachers feel they are teaching to the test and not really having the opportunity or ability to teach students the material," Education Oversight Committee spokeswoman Dana Yow said. "But testing also can have positive effects because it helps with the practice of teaching."

Some standardized tests provide constructive feedback about what students know and what they have yet to master, according to Bethany McNeil, a third-grade teacher at St. Helena Elementary School.

These are called "formative assessments," used to monitor learning and provide continual feedback designed to help teachers improve instruction.

Examples of such tests administered by the Beaufort County School District include the Measures for Academic Progress, or MAP test, and the Fountas and Pinnell reading test. MAP is taken by students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and Fountas and Pinnell by students in kindergarten through fifth grade. They are administered once each in fall, winter and spring.

"Those tests are very purposeful in helping teachers understand what students know, what they don't know and what areas we need to address," said McNeil, a first-year teacher. "We have to go back and reflect on the test with students. That's what makes them worthwhile."

What are all these tests?

Click a test name for more information:

















However, most standardized tests -- in Beaufort County, in South Carolina and across the nation -- are "summative assessments." They are used to evaluate students' mastery of subject matter at the end of instruction by measuring their test performance against a standard or benchmark. Examples include end of course exams; the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, or PASS; and the High School Assessment Program, or HSAP.

Summative tests can raise the hackles of educators, who say they're too often used for unintended purposes -- like grading schools and rating teachers.


Several Beaufort County educators agree there is a need for summative tests. In aggregate, they can measure the performance of districts and individual schools, and results often are used to determine school funding or other forms of support.

Some also have suggested tying teacher evaluations to these tests, and that doesn't sit well with many educators.

A bill proposed by state Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head, which would overhaul teacher evaluations and derive a chunk of them from assessments, stalled in a House subcommittee in February. Two pay-for-performance trial programs are already underway in the state -- one by the state Association for School Administrators and the other by the state Education Department -- but have yet to be analyzed to determine if they are successful.

Both McNeil and Hilton Head Island High School teacher Christine Gray said one test on one day is not an accurate or complete representation of students' knowledge or ability to learn -- and by extension, teachers' ability to teach.

"It shouldn't be about having a tool to rank schools or rate teachers," added Beaufort County Board of Education Chairman Bill Evans, a former teacher, principal and district administrator. "That shouldn't be the only reason we take tests."

Patrick said that if a student is learning, then it is safe to assume the teacher is doing a good job. He said it is fair to evaluate students and teachers by these tests to measure their growth.

Teachers said they have no problem with evaluations linked to student performance. But relying on standardized test data for that measurement is not an authentic appraisal and it doesn't show the whole picture, Evans said.

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Private, charter schools not as overwhelmed by assessments

Tests weren't always intended for that purpose, district chief instructional services officer Dereck Rhoads said. Many began as ways to measure how well students were learning and to improve instruction, but now they are used to assign grades and determine funding, he said.

Video: 'Not measuring the same stuff'

Hilton Head Island High School math teacher Christine Gray on challenges for standardized testing. "So they try to find some basic measurement and say all the kids have to get pass this... How do we see if an individual child is making progress?"

"If we used these tests for assessment purposes to really assess how students are doing and to identify deficiencies and correct those deficiencies, then I think it's a good thing," superintendent Jeff Moss said. "But if we're using these tests to grade students and teachers and compare them, then I don't think it's effective and don't think it really gives us what we want in the end."

There's also evidence that the more standardized tests U.S. students take, the more their performance slips.

Since the number of tests exploded in 2000, the nation's rankings on the Program for International Student Assessment have dipped in all three test subjects. The results from the 2012 assessment show that students dropped from 18th in math in 2000 to 35th, 14th in science to 27th, and 15th in reading to 24th.

Something is not working -- on that, educators, students, parents and politicians seem to agree.

What is less clear is what, if anything, can be done about it.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at

About this series

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Our statewide school report card database shows school and district ratings over the last five years, and explores the connection between poverty and school ratings.

Over three installments, reporter Sarah Bowman looks at the hidden costs of standardized testing.

Part 1 (published March 30, 2014): The consensus is clear — Beaufort County public-school students can expect to spend a minimum of 150 hours taking standardized tests during their academic careers. Educators say so much testing comes with hidden costs.

Other features in this installment:

  • Taking the college boards? Advanced Placement tests? Talented-and-gifted assessments? Our interactive calculator helps you figure how many hours your child will spend taking standardized tests.
  • Interactive guide: MAP. PASS. ACT. SAT. EOC. What does the alphabet soup of assessments mean? What do they measure? Our guide tells you
  • Audio: Hear a psychologist talk about the toll high-stakes testing takes on kids.
  • Extra: Critics say too much standardized testing detracts from a well-round education.

Part 2 (published March 31, 2014): The number of standardized tests administered to public-school students exploded in the past decade. What explains the phenomena?

Other features in this installment:

  • Extra: Constant changes to required assessments make it difficult for educators to establish a baseline and measure real progress. (By the way, controversial Common Core standards means yet another test to adopt.)
  • Extra: Why private schools have it better -- but not perfect -- when it comes to limiting the number of standardized tests students take.

Part 3 (published April 1, 2014): If so many people agree public-school students take too many standardized tests, why isn’t more being done to beat back all the assessments? Politics are one reason.

Other features in this installment:

  • Video: No one says testing and assessment aren’t important. But teachers wonder if more can’t be done to strike a better balance between time spent teaching and time spent measuring.
  • Extra: A closer look at South Carolina's efforts to prepare for Common Core and two potential test programs to measure progress toward those standards. It's SBAC vs. ACT.

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