Put down your No. 2 pencils: Too much testing in public schools


Finland, a perennial top performer on the international PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test, commits each student to such a test only once in that student’s entire educational experience. They do extremely well in international educational comparisons.

On the other hand, to the detriment of time spent providing quality classroom learning experiences for our kids, we test them into a stupor. Additionally, the test results are often presented to the public in a misleading way. Beyond that, some question whether standardized tests challenge students in all the areas that they should be challenged in. Finally, what does the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) show us about achievement over an extended period of time?

Looking at past MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) scores one finds that, year after year after year, wealthy districts score high on that test while poorer districts reside in the lower reaches of results. It becomes obvious that income can be used as a proxy for factors outside of the school. One panelist on a Harvard University group discussing education called it the “iron-clad correlation” between socio-economic factors and student proficiency. The Michigan Department of Education throws “parental involvement” into the mix.

What is crystal clear is that parental educational level, parental involvement in a student’s education, stability at home, nutrition, health care, neighborhood environment and other factors play a huge role in determining the motivation and persistence necessary for success in school. As the weight of these factors is different from district to district, valid comparisons across school districts cannot be made using raw scores alone.

The fact is that a school, whose raw score is high on a standardized test, may not be a school of high quality at the same time that a school scoring low may, indeed, be a high quality school. It, mostly, depends upon the “iron-clad” socio-economic and parental involvement correlation with student success that is present in each individual school’s student population. Some (like Bridge magazine’s Academic State Champs rankings) have taken note of this and integrated family income and the number of economically disadvantaged students into calculations of school quality in Michigan. Doing so provides a different, better and much more realistic ranking.

But test results are not to be used in a competitive race among different students, school districts or states. On the contrary, test scores should be used as a tool for educators to evaluate their personal classroom behavior, how well their class and individual students are doing and the degree to which the curriculum is aligned with the test.

At the very least, test results may point the way to a change in pedagogy, student responses to those changes and needed changes in the curriculum that improve educational outcomes. They are not part of an educational horse race, with winners and losers, as both the Michigan Department of Education and the United States Department of Education list school districts, wrongly, use raw test scores as a measure of quality.

Then, there is the question of what these tests do and do not measure. They do not touch upon ability in art, physical education or music and some other aspects of the curriculum. As a generalization it is fair to recognize that overuse of standardized tests narrows the curriculum.
A recent study, done by psychologists, at Harvard, Brown and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also found that a higher test score on a standardized test does not necessarily mean a higher thinking level.

Studying almost 1,400 students in Boston Public Schools, psychologists found that some schools raised student’s scores on the statewide assessment. But no improvement was found on what psychologists call “fluid intelligence” – working memory capacity, the speed of information processing and the ability to solve abstract problems. Only 3 percent of the variation of those factors were attributable to schools.

In a period where knowledge and manipulating knowledge is increasingly important, analysis, synthesis and evaluation, critical thinking, problem solving and creativity generally, should rank high within a curriculum. They do not.

Finally, what do these tests show over time? At a time when the typical urban student is administered standardized tests 112 times during their educational experience and at a time when the Superintendent of Michigan schools is proposing that students be tested twice a year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows reading scores in 2015 to have dropped five points since 1992. Math scores have been stagnant for a decade. Perhaps the Finns know something that we do not.

Our dependence upon big data and testing has been a miserable failure. Clearly, it is time to reject standardized testing as a means to improve educational outcomes. It is time to replace standardized testing with classroom learning experiences. It is time to place politicians and reformers, who don’t know jack about how children learn, on the shelf and listen to teachers who do know how children learn when setting educational policy.

Al Churchill of Livonia is a retiree of United Auto Workers Local 182.

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Fri, 05/20/2016 - 1:29pm
When you don't like what tests show ... GET RID OF THEM. Why have these nasty tests when we know that all teachers, schools and students are clearly above average? For that matter why have grades when the tried and true smiley faces and gold stars will work just fine?
Sat, 05/21/2016 - 1:12am
Mr. CHurchill doesn't seem to understand that it isn't about the school trying to manipulate numbers to make the students feel they are responsible for their learn, it is about the learning of each student. The reality is that learning is personal and will only happen based on the desire and effort the child has for learning. I wonder if Mr. Churchill has considered a key factor in personal performance for any individual endeavor is 'feedback.' I doubt he has ever considered why of all the student activities sports is the most visible, that it provides the most visibility of students in all the schools, why it has engenders the most vocal and avid community followings/support, the most school engagement, media following.Tthey keep score, so all people can tell what and how the students are doing, it provides feedback to the participants and the spectators alike. [Reality is that engaged support can be key to keeping kids on track and focused on what they are getting support for doing, understanding of what they are doing right and what opportunities for improvement are.] Mr. Churchill seems to be afraid of scoring, of feedback, of timely and direct descriptions of what the student is doing, scoring even helps students to know where they stand in their learning process. With the avoidance of feedback [personal, immediate, and specific] he is willing to undermine the students potential and their personal control of their learning. Currently it seems the only opportunity students have for valuable feedback is from testing, we have no equivalent scoring as in sports, so removing 'testing' becomes one more barrier to learning success. It sounds like Mr. Churchill has his rationalization of why children should fail. It is as if wants to ensure his view that they will fail by not allowing them to know how much they have learned, how much they need to learn, or having the means to know if what they are doing is working. Testing/feedback is critical to everyone's individual success, ask any coach, ask any successful person, ask any parent who cares, ask any teacher, ask any successful student.
Sat, 05/21/2016 - 7:23am
With the type of testing being talked about here I'm not sure the student gets any kind of personal feedback on how they did, I believe the scores are just lumped together to show a trend.
Sat, 05/21/2016 - 10:08am
***, I have my doubts whether the tests are being effectively use to help the students, but to simply stop such testing without even discussing how they might be used gives an impression of not making the effort to understand what impacts on a students learning it could have, not trying to understand how to address key factors, and how to use what is available. I have not seen the tests, but if they have been established on a broader basis to reflect a knowledge and skill level reflective of the norm for particular grades then it would seem the results could be used as a data informing students of their relative performance. It could be use as a point to start a discussion with a student on what they feel the barriers are to them improving and how they might address it, or a discussion of their success and what are they doing that help them achieve it. In either case it can be a tool in helping the student focus on practices that impact their performance.
Al Churchill
Mon, 05/23/2016 - 1:02pm
Duane In writing this article, it was not my intent to suggest that all testing be abolished. Testing is a valuable item in a teachers toolkit. I wrote,"... test scores should be used as a tool for educators to evaluate their personal classroom behavior, how well their class and individual students are doing and the degree to which the curriculum is aligned with the test. At the very least, test results may point the way to a change in pedagogy, student responses to those changes and needed changes in the curriculum that improve educational outcomes." It is simply the overuse of standardized tests like Common Core that I object to. Otherwise, agree with much that you have written above. .
Mon, 05/23/2016 - 11:43pm
Mr. Churchill, First let me thank you for engaging commenters and turning you article into conversations, that adds so much value to the article and it is very rare even on Bridge. In my case it caused me to reread both your article and my comments, and think about how to phrase my thinking. I appreciate that you didn't say to end all testing or that testing shouldn't be used by educators. I was trying to offer a different perspective What concerned me was that in your article and in your comment that you only talk about the adults, leaving an impression that the students had no role in the learning process or the test results, and that the students had no reason to have the results presented to them. My experience is different than yours for it has shown me that students are the ones that do the learning, it is their desire to learn and the effort that they make to learn which determines what and if they learn. My experience has also shown me the importance of feedback to people on the efforts they make. The tests seem built up to being important and yet you don’t seem to feel the students can gain any value from finding out how they personally did. How the results are presented to them can have as much impact as what their results are, but in any case it can help to link effort to learning. [The more immediate the feedback the better, the more frequent the feedback the better.] I can understand why you see these tests as burdensome. What I try to do with what is required is to seek ways to gain value from it while trying to change the requirement. There are many other things I have a different view of, such as 'wealthy' vs 'poor', again it is more about the individual student and their micro-culture than the parents financial status.
J. S. Roach
Sun, 05/22/2016 - 6:40am
We have testing in sports (scores). We introduce testing in the arts (state and local competitions). We don't want testing in the singular area that most profoundly impacts the economic achievement of the child and the country (academics). Does that make sense? How do we know Finland does so well? Standardized tests.
Al Churchill
Mon, 05/23/2016 - 1:19pm
JS We know that Finland does well because of ONE standardized test in a students entire school experience----not because of a multiplicity of standardized tests. That's the point. You will note that the title of the article refers to "Too much testing...", not the abolishment of testing. As with my response to Duane above, I fully recognize the value and necessity of testing but think it is overdone.
Kevin Grand
Sun, 05/22/2016 - 6:50am
"Our dependence upon big data and testing has been a miserable failure. Clearly, it is time to reject standardized testing as a means to improve educational outcomes."The elephant in the room that everyone has apparently missed (or just doesn't want to talk about), is that big data is a huge component of common core. I would agree with Mr. Churchill on one important aspect here: About a little over a century ago, America didn't have a top-down educatocracy coming from Washington telling schools not only how/what they should learn, but what to think as well (i.e. the latest "transgender" kerfuffle). America went to global superpower during that time, not from edicts coming down from Washington (something that is not even within their purview in the first place), but from its citizens educated through locally operated school districts. Ironically, the data has shown conclusively that federal control doesn't work. We should take a page from history and instead go back to what works.
Al Churchill
Mon, 05/23/2016 - 1:44pm
Kevin. I am fully aware of the history of Common Core and big data. That is probably why I wrote the article. At least, relative to Common Core, I agree that Washington has too much overreach. Indeed it is illegal for the US Dept. of Education to develop curriculum. Inasmuch as a test (Common Core), in order to have any validity, must correlate, pretty much 1 to 1 with a curriculum, the Dept. of Ed has written a curriculum. They did not do the actual writing. But the test determines what will be in it. So Washington has in fact determined the curriculum.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 05/22/2016 - 12:43pm
The problem is not so much standardized tests as how they are used. If indeed these tests were used to tell the students and their teachers what they knew and more importantly what they need to work on, and the results were immediately available, then they would serve a purpose. It would still be one small part an overall assessment.
Sun, 05/22/2016 - 3:34pm
Mr. Churchill says, "A recent study, done by psychologists, at Harvard, Brown and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also found that a higher test score on a standardized test does not necessarily mean a higher thinking level." In other words, you cannot teach intelligence. But is that the function of schools? I thought we were trying to teach knowledge and skills. But then he goes on to assert that teaching intelligence should "rank high within a curriculum". No. Let's use schools to do what they can do: teach knowledge and skills. The success of that activity can, and should, be tested. He is quite right when he says that raw scores unadjusted for socioeconomic factors are not a good measure of a school's quality. But as he also points out, it is an easy matter to adjust those scores for socioeconomic factors. And schools can, and should, be judged on those adjusted scores.
Tue, 06/21/2016 - 11:21am
Amen! The problem with putting them on the shelf is $$$ tied to their wants... Sad none of them thanked a teacher for being professionals.