Most people would agree that standardized tests are a necessary part of our public education system. But a recent series by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reveal that it's possible to have too much of a good thing.
Beaufort County students spend 22 full schools days by the time they graduate taking more than 60 standardized tests as required by federal and state officials. That doesn't include many add-on tests such as the SAT, and it doesn't include the regular tests and quizzes that teachers have given since the dawn of public education to ensure their students are grasping classroom lessons.
What's most troublesome is that, according to principals, teachers and district officials, many of these standardized tests are duplicative, meaning students are quizzed multiple times in any given school year to determine mastery of the same material. It's a waste of classroom time. Even state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais agrees that repetitive tests should be eliminated.
We are not opposed to assessing students via standardized tests. In fact, prior to South Carolina developing its Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test as required by No Child Left Behind in 2001, it was difficult to quickly gauge what students in different parts of the state knew and how S.C. districts stacked up against each other.
Thanks to the standardized test, and its successor, the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards along with state report cards, we now have a quick, easy-to-understand electronic way to see how students at individual schools and in individual districts are doing in their efforts to meet state standards and whether they have made progress from one year to the next. Hard data has replaced misguided stereotypes and general impressions of S.C. schools and districts.
And national assessments such as the Measures for Academic Progress, or MAP test, tell teachers how students are progressing at a given moment in the school year. It's a critical tool for educators, allowing them to quickly identify the concepts their students have learned and the ones they have not, then reteach the material or present it in a different way that students may better grasp. On a larger scale, these tests provide important apple-to-apple comparisons between the education systems of South Carolina and other states.
Unfortunately, the accountability pendulum seems to have swung too far. Now, standardized tests are wrongly viewed as the ultimate way to determine if students and schools are successful and, as such, are allowed to eat up too much of the school day. The unintended consequences include educators pressured to teach to the test; students wasting critical school time on redundant assessments and a public sentiment that empirical data provides a complete picture of a student, a school, a teacher.
The outcomes can be unfortunate. In 2009, for example, nearly 180 teachers and administrators who worked at more than half of the elementary and middle schools in the Atlanta, Ga. school district were implicated in changing students' incorrect answers on a state-administered standardized test. One of the nation's largest cheating scandals, it illustrates the oversized importance of high-stakes tests and the intense pressure they put on educators.
We suspect the nation's growing devotion to standardized tests may even be counterproductive to the overarching goal of preparing students for life after high school. Time spent on a standardized test is time denied for mixing chemicals during science labs, participating in internships to see if certain careers are a good fit, perfecting public speaking abilities during school presentations and honing skills in band rooms and on auditorium stages.
That's not to say there's no need for standardized tests. But we must strive for a comprehensive accountability system in which one test compliments the next rather than the current patchwork approach of adding a new test every time a state or federal education law is passed.
And ultimately, these tests are just one piece of assessing our education system. To see the complete picture, we must also visit classrooms, talk to educators and interact with students.
We ask a lot of educators and students. They deserve a testing system that is rigorous, but also fair and efficient.