The dangers of anti-test frenzy

The fight against standardized testing has become about more than testing. For some, it’s about control over what happens in our children’s classrooms. For some, it’s about finding a new weapon in the political battle against Common Core standards.

For those reasons, as well as some legitimate worries about the accumulation and content of tests, the anti-test movement has gained traction of late. In Washington, Congress is reauthorizing and reworking the No Child Left Behind Act, the source of many standardized tests. In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory said he will soon release details on reducing tests.

Lawmakers should proceed carefully. Standardized tests shouldn’t be the sole means of evaluating students and teachers, but they are a valuable instrument for educators and, as studies have shown, can have a positive effect on student achievement.

Are they being used too much? Perhaps. In Charlotte, parents have rebelled in recent years against the array of tests Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the state have used to measure student and teacher performance. Opponents of those high-stakes tests say they take up not only class time and staff resources, but days and weeks of preparation time that could be devoted to other pursuits.

The latter complaint is the loudest – that teachers are forced to use too much class time “teaching to the test.” It’s true that standardized tests steal some freedom from the classroom. It’s also true that the best of our teachers, the ones who use their classroom time in extraordinary and innovative ways, now have to give away a chunk of that time for test prep.

We’re reluctant to join that “teach to the test” chorus, however, for the simple reason that the tests given today are usually worth teaching to. They cover core material in critical subjects. They demand thoughtful discernment and deep reading comprehension. Those are skills we want our students to learn. In too many classrooms, they aren’t.

Standardized testing is about those struggling classrooms, really. When done well, test results offer measurable areas where students can improve. They identify teachers who need guidance or a nudge out the door. They let parents know if their children are falling behind.

The governor and N.C. lawmakers should look at standardized testing not as a whole to be rid of, but as individual items to be evaluated. Does each test demand the grade-appropriate skills we want in our students? Are standardized tests worthwhile for all classes they cover?

Eliminating those tests outright would steal a dependable tool from educators, and from parents, especially the ones who need it most.