Less testing, more learning

It is time to consider less testing and more learning in our schools.

As our kids embark on another school year, they will experience and enjoy many of the same memorable projects and lessons we once learned. Parents and educators are excited to spark their curiosity and teach the important critical thinking skills that will help students grow and succeed.

But unfortunately a focus on tests looms large this school year. In a few months, the first results of PARCC — the new test aligned to Common Core — will be released. When those results come out, be careful about jumping to quick conclusions. In the first year of a new test, scores typically drop as students adjust to new formats, developmentally inappropriate or confusing questions are discovered, and technology and other implementation problems are ironed out. Take the time to understand the results, but also the context and caveats.

Parents and teachers believe that we should take a closer look at everything happening in our schools. Increasingly, the first thing we judge a school by is its test scores. Is it healthy for our children and our schools to be so test-obsessed? Should we judge our students so decisively by their scores on a standardized test? Should a student's ability to have a well-rounded education be crowded out by the increasing amount of time to prep for and administer not only PARCC, but hours upon hours of locally-mandated tests?

We believe that the answer is no — and that it is time to consider less testing and more learning in our schools. The increasing focus on testing in recent years has led to less time to learn the things that make students successful and well-rounded, both in class and in life.

Students now spend an excessive amount of time taking and preparing for standardized tests. The Baltimore Sun reported last year that 8th graders in Anne Arundel County tested for up to 46 hours a year, with Harford County close behind at up to 42 hours. Some students in Frederick spent nearly a third of their class time taking tests. If you look at Carroll County's calendar for this past school year, tests were scheduled for all but nine days between the time when kids get back from winter break and the end of school. That is an enormous amount of time that could be used for learning that students will never get back — class projects they will never work on and field trips they will never take.

Those engaging lessons are exactly the kind of activities that help students develop a deep love for learning. But it is not just certain lessons that are cut — entire subjects that used to make for a well-rounded education are now put on the back burner. Schools often pull students out of physical education, foreign language or music class to take tests or focus on test prep — and some have even cut their arts programs altogether so they can direct even more time to subjects that are tested. Many students love going to school because they get to play sports or be artistic. Parents do not want to see them lose those opportunities in favor of more standardized testing. Parents want schools to be more, not less of an engaging place for all students.

It would be a different story if standardized testing worked out to an even trade-off — we lose time for learning now, but the information we gain from testing informs better teaching for each child in the future. But too often that is not the reality of what actually goes on in schools. The results for some tests do not even come back to the teacher or the parent until well into the following school year, when there is nothing they can do to use that information to help the students who took that test and are now in a different grade.

It is no wonder that according to a recent poll 95 percent of educators in Maryland think there is too much time spent on standardized testing. Parents now list too much standardized testing as one of their top concerns about schools. If — like thousands of teachers, education professionals and parents — you believe it is time for real action to reduce standardized testing, join our movement by visiting LessTestingMoreLearning.com. Let's focus on what really matters for our kids by making less testing and more learning in our schools a reality.

Betty Weller is president of the Maryland State Education Association; her email is bweller@mseanea.org. Elizabeth Ysla Leight is president of the Maryland Parent-Teacher Association; her email is president@mdpta.org.

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