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New Book Looks At The History And Future Of Testing In U.S. Schools

Anya Kamenetz is an education reporter for NPR and author of a new book on testing in U.S. schools.
Anya Kamenetz
Anya Kamenetz is an education reporter for NPR and author of a new book on testing in U.S. schools.
Anya Kamenetz is an education reporter for NPR and author of a new book on testing in U.S. schools.
Credit Anya Kamenetz
Anya Kamenetz is an education reporter for NPR and author of a new book on testing in U.S. schools.

Lots of people think there’s too much testing going on in schools right now. It’s one of the most contentious issues in education.

Lawmakers want to scale back the amount of time Florida students spend taking tests.

But at the same time, Florida is rolling out a new test tied to new math and language arts standards -- known as Common Core.

NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz researched the history and use of standardized exams for her book, “The Test.”

Read an edited version of our interview with Kamenetz below.

What was your view on testing before you started work on the book, and did it change at all during the course of reporting and writing it?

As I began to be an education reporter, first I was a higher education reporter. And I was very enthralled with, sort of, innovations in highered. And when I turned my attention to K-12, partly because I had a child of my own, I realized that there was very much less scope for... innovation in K-12.                                 

In fact, there was something really serious going on where schools and great educators that I met felt hamstrung, essentially, by the onerousness of testing requirements. So I realized instead of writing about... the evolving future of K-12 education, I had to write about this legacy situation of high-stakes standardized testing.

Florida was one of the states that pioneered the use of testing to do everything from measuring schools, to promoting students -- deciding who gets to graduate from high school or not. Now it seems like this year particularly, lawmakers are ready to maybe dial some of that back. Are we seeing that across the country, and why do you think that is?

We absolutely are seeing that across the country, yeah, both from parents and from educators. The reason, I think, it’s just like anything else, naturally it reaches a tipping point where people start to question just how much of our resources as schools we should be devoting to prepping and testing.

Why do you think this is happening now?

Part of the reason is probably because of the Common Core. It’s really making clear this idea that it’s an unprecedented federal intervention into education. And that rubs a lot of people the wrong way across the political spectrum.

The Common Core and the tests together kind of become this unholy package that parents and teachers look at and say, "You know, we are not in charge of our own public schools anymore. The public schools are being controlled by outside forces."

What’s the value of testing? And is it different now than, say, when states first started trying it out?

Well, you know, it’s really hard to say what the value of testing is because so much of how we make judgments in education is, in fact, measured by testing.

And so, you can say that achievement gaps have narrowed very, very slightly, but you’re measuring the tests – the test is how you decide that. So the fact that students are getting better at taking tests doesn’t really tell you anything about how they’re actually learning.

The tests themselves are not supposed to improve the educational experience. They’re just supposed to see how it’s doing.

And so, what we do when we impose a lot of tests is we’re crowding out other things that school is supposed to be doing. And when we test only math and reading, we are giving a powerful disincentive to schools, especially struggling schools, to teach music and art and science and social studies and physical education.

So, we know that testing is reducing instructional time, particularly in schools and for students that are struggling the most. And that’s, sort of, one of the most broad things we can say about the impact of testing on education itself.

You also spend a portion of your book giving advice to parents how to deal with testing. What is your advice if you have a parent who is concerned about the effect on their child?

The more you know about tests, I think the more it diminishes your anxiety. Considering a lot of these tests do not have individual consequences for your child, it might be better to sit a few of them out.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

John O'Connor
John O’Connor is a reporter for StateImpact Florida, a project of WUSF, WLRN and NPR covering education. John writes for the StateImpact Florida blog and produces stories for air on Florida public radio stations.
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