Most people are probably familiar with the TNReady debacles of last school year (or seven months ago this calendar year), the reverberations of which are still being felt in school buildings across the state. In response to this situation, the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) has hired a new testing company, Questar, to administer TNReady, and they have decided to phase-in online testing over a period of several years. In response to parents’ and educators’ concerns about the length of the tests, they have reduced testing times as well. From a teacher’s perspective, I would argue that all of these changes are positive, and a step in the right direction; but we can’t, and shouldn’t, be satisfied.
On the surface, it seems wonderful that elementary students will spend almost two hours and high school students approximately three hours less time testing than last year. The other side of that same coin, however, is that, starting in third grade, Tennessee students will still spend nearly eight hours of testing time in English/Language Arts, math, science, and social studies. To be fair, it will be spread out over the course of several days and among ten subtests in the four subject areas. Wait! Did I just say TEN subtests for a total of almost EIGHT hours? Is that really necessary?
Middle school students will take the same number of subtests, but the times are a tad longer, and by the time a student enters high school--especially junior year--it becomes especially ridiculous. Most high school juniors are enrolled in English 3, Algebra II, Chemistry, and U.S. History. All of these courses have a TNReady or End-of-Course exam. As such, a high school junior will spend nearly TEN hours testing in these four subjects, across a combined ELEVEN subtests!
The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which goes into effect next school year, does actually lessen the testing requirements from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Under ESSA, students in grades 3-8 must still be tested every year in English/Language Arts and math, and in science, once in grades 3-5 and one more time in grades 6-9. High school students are required to take one English, one math, and one science test. Tests in other subjects and additional tests in these three subjects can be given at the state’s discretion.
While I sadly recognize that standardized testing will never completely go away, I have a solution to students being over-tested: Shorten the tests students are required to take and give them as few as possible. What would this look like, exactly?
In elementary and middle school, I propose keeping the social studies tests and eliminating: (a) two English/Language Arts subtests (keeping the writing test); (b) one math subtest; (c) and one science subtest. Student progress can still be monitored with shorter, more efficiently created tests. This would reduce the testing time from 8 hours to approximately 5.5 hours in grades 3-8. All of these tests should be aligned with the ACT so students will be prepared for the next level. Currently, there’s no alignment between ACT and TNReady.
For high school, I would recommend keeping the U.S. History test, but shortening it to two subtests totaling 90 minutes for the writing and objective components combined. As for the other subjects, school districts should have the option to use the ACT, which is already a requirement for 11th graders. This one exam would satisfy the federal testing requirement, it only takes about 3.5 hours, and students are now allowed one free retake. Otherwise, give the TNReady English III test (keeping the writing test but eliminating two of the subtests), give a 90 minute math test at the end of the junior year that combines Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry, and give a 90 minute science test that combines elements of biology and chemistry. There is no need for each of these subjects to have its own test because, again, student progress can be monitored with shorter, more efficiently created tests. The ACT and SAT have been doing it for decades.
Reimagining TNReady in this manner also makes it impossible to count it as part of a student’s report card grade; so, to ensure that they take the tests seriously, I recommend that a basic proficiency level be set on each test for students to receive their high school diplomas, with a requirement that students be proficient in at least three out of the four core subjects. After all, shouldn’t students have at least basic reading comprehension, writing, mathematics, science, and U.S. history knowledge when they graduate from high school?