Column: Are We Testing Kids Too Much?

At what point does accountability take a back seat to teaching to the test?

Even more tests appear to be in the future of New Jersey’s high school students.

Last week, Gov. Chris Christie proposed replacing the state’s High School Proficiency Assessment, which most students have to pass to graduate, with a group of end-of-course exams for those in grades 9 through 11.

The change is needed, according to Christie, because the HSPA only measures achievement at an eighth-grade level, and that’s not good enough for the modern world. At recent budget hearings, state college presidents said they wind up spending thousands of hours and millions of dollars on remedial courses to bring freshmen up to collegiate level because these new students are coming in unprepared.

Obviously, students need to have the appropriate skills to succeed in college or in the workforce and schools that graduate those who lack these skills are failing them and failing society.

But should students be forced to take at least six other tests, perhaps as many as a dozen?

The problem with standardized testing is the same as its benefit: it’s standardized, the same everywhere. And schools teach to the test.

When schools are not teaching the knowledge and skills students need, standardized testing and the accountability of score reporting can force them to do a better job covering important skills.

When schools have been doing a good job, though, students don’t get extra enrichment opportunities, because teachers wind up spending so much time teaching to the test. Today, almost all 11th-graders take the HSPA. Those going to college also take the SAT or the ACT, sometimes both.

Then there are nearly three dozen Advanced Placement tests in English, math, the sciences, history, languages and electives like drawing, psychology and economics. The best students may take four or five AP courses and tests in their junior and senior years, probably a couple in sophomore year, as well. Even the average student in the typical Middlesex County school may take one or two.

So that’s already a lot of testing.

By “passing” an AP test—getting a score of 3 or more—a student can usually get college credit and avoid having to take a comparable college course. Shouldn’t that count for something?

Statewide, 20 percent of upper level students take AP courses.

New Jersey is considering replacing the HSPA with a test in language arts and math at the end of grades 9, 10 and 11. There’s also the possibility of similar end-of-course tests in science and social studies at the same grade levels.

Add that to SATs, ACTs and APs and students will wind up spending weeks every spring preparing for and taking tests. The other danger is that as schools focus more on the state-mandated tests, with their standardized curriculums, they won’t have the staff or resources to devote to higher-level AP classes or other enrichment experiences like music ensembles, video production or sci-fi fiction.

Some schools have already complained that the financial literacy class recently added as a graduation requirement has cut into students’ ability to take music and art classes.

Surely mastering an AP class in English or math should supersede a state end-of-year test?

What state education officials need to do, as they flesh out specific requirements to try to make sure all New Jersey students graduate from high school properly prepared for the future is strike a balance and individualize the process of standardized testing.


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