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Is there too much testing in the public schools?

September 24, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
This is the first year that schools will publish student test scores tied to the Common Core initiative. Critics argue that implementing these new standards cause overtesting that rob teachers and students of valuable teaching time. Judy Woodruff gets debate from Kathleen Porter-Magee of the Partnership for Inner-City Education and Miami-Dade County Public Schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there too much testing today in the public schools? It’s a question more parents, teachers and school officials are asking around the country. This is the first year scores on new tests tied to the Common Core standards will be published in many states. Some early adopters like New York State have already seen students’ scores dive on the new exams.

Now more parents are opting their children out of tests and some officials are calling for a time-out when it comes to linking test results to consequences.

As a part of our American Graduate series, we explore this with two who are closely involved.

Alberto Carvalho is the superintendent of Miami-Dade County School District, who’s calling for changes. His district is dealing with dozens of mandated tests throughout the year. And Kathleen Porter-Magee is with the Partnership for Inner-City Education. She’s also a fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

We welcome you both.

To you first, Alberto Carvalho, in Miami-Dade. What do you see in your district in terms of the number of tests students are expected to take?

ALBERTO CARVALHO, Superintendent, Miami-Dade County School District: Well, I have seen a complete swing of the pendulum way too far in the direction of overtesting.

Right now, this year, we’re facing about 32 different assessments, different tests that our students will have to take, in addition to about 1,200 different end-of-course assessments mandated by both state and federal entities.

So I think if that’s not an indication of teaching time being robbed from teachers and students alike in favor of testing, I don’t know what would be. And so I think that’s a real crisis we facing not only in Miami, but across the country. And I think we need to recalibrate the necessity of so many of these tests, conduct a thorough analysis of the duplicate nature of some of these exams, and have a rapid regression back to reason in terms of what’s appropriate for students and teachers alike.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kathleen Porter-Magee, is this as onerous as Mr. Carvalho describes?

KATHLEEN PORTER-MAGEE, Partnership for Inner-City Education: It depends on the place. And I think that is one of the challenges of this being a national debate.

There are certainly some districts where the testing is far too onerous, where students are taking hours upon hours of tests. There are other places where I think it is far less so. And I think that is one of the challenges is we really need to separate this out and have local debates about what makes sense for each community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying it just depends on where you live, what school district you’re in?

KATHLEEN PORTER-MAGEE: It depends on where you live, yes, because a lot of times — so, in a lot of places, there are state requirements, for example, that students take English language arts and math assessments that are aligned to, for example, the Common Core state standards.

In addition in some districts, there are district level requirements. In addition, sometimes, school requires testings that go on top of that. All of that can add up to hours and hours spent on testing, and taken away from instruction. So it does — it can reach a point where it just gets to be far too much.

In other places, I think it’s more limited to the state mandates, and there’s far more flexibility at the local level to what teachers and studies can do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alberto Carvalho, again, in Miami-Dade, what is it that you’re saying is the deleterious effect of this? How is it affecting the education of these students?

ALBERTO CARVALHO: Well, I think, number one, I agree with what was said just now.

I think it varies from state to state, from community to community. The vast majority of the 32 assessments that I described are really state and federally mandated. But, certainly, the variance across the country is rather pronounced.

Look, the bottom line for me is I believe in accountability. I believe that you need to have a reasonable and respectful way of assessing children. Otherwise, you don’t have a way of informing the teaching and learning process. That’s key.

I think how we’re using the results of testing is what we need to question, in addition to the number of exams that we have in front of children. We have 32 different state or federally mandated exams on a system like Miami-Dade, in addition to the prospect of 1,200 additional end-of-course exams for every single course taught in the state of Florida, I think, is going too far.

Secondly, we all recognize as educators that you cannot manage what you can’t measure. However, when we use the rules of assessment, for example, in untested ways, venturing into areas that don’t necessarily inform what teachers need to know or communities need to know about whether or not children are learning, you’re going too far.

The true applicability of assessment and accountability is strictly to inform the instructional process, tying it often to untested methodology. Whether it is to reward schools with additional funding or teachers evaluation using untested methodology like them is perhaps going too far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kathleen Porter-Magee, it sounds like he’s saying that these tests are being created to measure something that came out of a think tank, rather than something that applies to what these children really need to learn.


And, again, I think it’s — for the most part, that’s not true, right? So, some of the — let’s call it the state-mandated tests that are aligned to the state standards. They’re meant to test whether or not students have mastered the content and skills that the state says they need at each grade level. And in those cases, I think those summit of tests are very important, because they are a gauge that tells us, are students where they need to be? Are they learning what they need to learn?

And, in fact, it was these tests, it was the advent of state-level testing and accountability that allowed us to have the conversations we’re having today about things like the achievement gap. We really saw that our most disadvantaged students were just learning far less. And it was so clear. And the power of the test was really contributing to that conversation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just very quickly to you, this argument that teachers are now teaching to the test, rather than teaching what they need to be spending time with these children.

KATHLEEN PORTER-MAGEE: Yes, and I think that’s a fair unintended consequence. I think we are seeing — when people say teaching to the test, I think what they mean is trying to game the test.

So, essentially, they’re taking away from content instruction and they’re teaching tricks. Here’s how you answer this question. Here’s how you eliminate answer choices. And when that is supplanting core content instruction, students lose. So there’s no question that when that has started to happen — and we have seen it happen and it has been an unintended consequence — that’s bad.

What I should say, though…


JUDY WOODRUFF: I was just going to say, I want to come back to Superintendent Carvalho in our limited time.

The point has been made to me that Florida, Miami-Dade had time to prepare for these Common Core standards, and yet this has come, this has happened in a way that the county and around the state, they seem to be taken aback by it. Why wasn’t the state, or was the state, is the county better prepared to handle the Common Core requirements?

ALBERTO CARVALHO: Well, I think the county is actually prepared.

Our teachers are ready to implement the standards. We have been implementing the new standards over the past three years, at least at the elementary level. That’s not the question.

However, the state was on the late train in terms of adopting a new assessment that is now being constructed, field tested in Utah to be applied in the state of Florida. I believe that’s a mistake.

Secondly — and I think this is a critical point — nobody’s questioning the necessity of assessment. I support the assessment. In fact, I believe that overtesting is just as bad as not testing at all. How would you know whether or not you can identify pockets of underperforming students even in high-performing schools or districts? So assessment is important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Kathleen Porter-Magee, to you, finally, what is it that needs to be done? You’re saying don’t throw out all testing. You’re just saying, just take a careful look at it.

KATHLEEN PORTER-MAGEE: Absolutely. I think there needs to be a very careful look.

I think we do need to look at individual students and say, how many hours of testing are we giving an individual student, and is that too much? Is it taking away from core instruction? And then, how are we using those assessment results? And I think there are some tough questions that we need to ask.

But I think we just need to be careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I think tests are important and I think they really actually have contributed in a very positive way to the education debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will leave it on that note.

Kathleen Porter-Magee, we thank you, and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

GWEN IFILL: Our American Graduate unit is part of a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

On Friday, we will bring you a second story involving the state of Florida, this about how schools are dealing with an influx of immigrants. Saturday marks American Graduate Day across the country, when there will be a special broadcast on most PBS stations featuring interviews with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and celebrities like Tony Bennett and actress Allison Williams, along with student voices and many others making a difference in the lives of young people.

This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.