Back in the Classroom, Testing Is As Bad As I Thought -- and Worse

01/14/2013 05:27 pm ET | Updated Mar 16, 2013

When I returned to the classroom in September after spending 12 years as a teacher educator, I thought I understood pretty clearly the damage that testing was doing in our schools. I'd spent time in dozens of Chicago school buildings and well over a hundred classrooms during the previous decade, and I'd seen the testing push get more and more intense.

But being in a school all day, every day for the past four months has given me a new perspective. I've realized that some of the negative side effects of testing were largely invisible to me in my parade of hour-long observations of student teachers.

To illustrate, let me explain how the MAP tests (and as you'll see, the plural "tests" is appropriate here) disrupt my school and harm students.

In Chicago, schools administer the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) assessment three times a year -- at the beginning, in January, and toward year's end. (The mid-year assessment is technically optional, but schools are encouraged to give it and many do.) The Northwest Evaluation Association, which markets the test to districts, claims that it provides a "wealth of detailed information for teachers, parents and administrators."

It's true, the test does provide piles of numerical data and gives school-based educators new jargon to toss around ("RIT bands," anyone?). But that doesn't mean the numbers are necessarily useful, or that the alleged benefits of MAP outweigh its real costs.

The test is web-based, so students in my school take it in the computer lab. (Notice that I said "the" computer lab, not "a" computer lab -- we have only one.) This means, of course, that the lab is unavailable during that time for any purpose that might involve students actually learning something.

How much time are we talking about? Well, it takes about three and a half weeks to administer the test to all the students in our school who are required to take it. Multiply that by three (remember, the MAP is given three times per year) and here's the result: the computer lab is converted into a de facto testing facility for over 10 weeks -- an entire quarter of the school year.

That would be bad enough in schools where nearly all students have computers and Internet access at home, but in Chicago neighborhoods where that's not the case, it's an even bigger loss.

Not only that, but because the MAP test is web-based, it requires a huge chunk of the district's bandwidth to be successfully administered in schools across the city. So earlier this year, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) sent out a memo stating that "No other web-based computer activity should be performed within the [school] building while the tests are being conducted."

When I heard about the memo, I thought it must've been a miscommunication. Surely teachers couldn't be expected to refrain from using the web during the entire school day for weeks at a time just so kids could take a test.

But I was wrong -- the directive said exactly that: No downloading or uploading files, no streaming videos, no web-based content creation. Last week I had to toss out one project and seriously revise another in my Media Literacy classes because they couldn't be completed without downloading or uploading images and other content from the web.

How's that for 21st century learning?

But that's not all. The MAP disrupts our daily class rotation as well. In my school's 7th-8th grades, where students go from one teacher to another for different subjects, the MAP testing schedule makes regular class switches impossible. So last week, students missed class time on four different days so that other classmates could be tested.

And remember, this happens three times a year, and that's only one series of tests -- the MAP. Our 8th graders also lose learning time to take the ISAT, EXPLORE, NAEP, ACCESS, the REACH Performance Tasks, and the Algebra Exit Exam. The color-coded CPS Assessment Calendar for 3rd-8th graders, despite its lively splashes of fuchsia, teal, and lime green, is one of the most depressing documents I've seen.

What's most troubling, though, is that the ground-level problems I've discussed here don't even touch on the more serious issues associated with these tests. Their focus on reading and math serves to constrict and distort the curriculum we provide to kids. In defiance of accepted psychometric practice, the tests are often used for purposes for which they were not intended (Chicago plans to use MAP scores as part of the "value-added" evaluation of teachers). And worst of all, even if they were less of a pain (and less costly) to administer, their general usefulness is debatable. The MAP, for example, has a margin of error that in some cases is larger than the typical student gain.

If I believed in the power of exclamation points, I would've used about seven of them at the end of that last sentence.

One recent bright spot in all this -- and it's a gleaming, burning, hurts-your-eyes bright spot -- is that just last week, the entire teaching faculty at Seattle's Garfield High School voted not to administer the MAP test to their students. In a public statement, the teachers wrote that it "wastes time, money, and precious school resources" and is not "an appropriate or useful tool in measuring progress."

The next day teachers at Ballard, another Seattle High School, collectively joined their Garfield colleagues, writing that the MAP test "has been and continues to be an embarrassing mistake."

This is not altogether surprising. Anger and frustration over the testing culture in schools have been building for years. A group of twelve teachers at Chicago's Curie High School successfully boycotted -- and ended -- a district-mandated test more than a decade ago.

But maybe now's the time that it boils over into a full-fledged grassroots resistance movement -- in Seattle, Chicago, and everywhere the MAP or any other money-burning and time-wasting test is given.

The teachers at Garfield and Ballard have done what a lot of teachers have wanted to do. They've stood up -- together -- and said no.

Now the rest of us have to ask ourselves: Who's next?