Here's a look at how educators view the world of testing:
• Less formal
• Less rigorous and usually focused on narrow topic
• Usually given often throughout the school year
• Low stakes
Examples: Classroom end-of-chapter test, district-wide quarterly math assessment
• More formal
• More rigorous and broad
• Usually given once a year or term
• High stakes - often used for accountability
Examples: TCAP, ACT and SAT
We've been taking tests since the days of the one-room schoolhouse.
Most of us grew used to the end-of-the-chapter science exams or the weekly spelling quizzes. And kids have been filling out those bubble sheets on state assessments for decades.
But the controversial No Child Left Behind law made testing so much more. Assessments are now central to public education, as important as textbooks, chalkboards and science experiments. And they're high stakes. Instead of just serving as scorecards, standardized tests now place federal dollars, people's jobs and kids' futures on the line.
The rising importance of those tests has now heralded the arrival of more tests. As Hamilton County Schools kick off the new school year this week, students may soon notice the addition of a new local assessment that officials say will help teachers identify what concepts their students are missing. That exam is needed, officials say, to help make kids more likely to pass state tests.
But this year's newest addition, a reading benchmark exam for elementary and middle school students, will be laid on top of other layers of formal and informal assessments. There's so much testing that district officials estimate the average Hamilton County student will spend almost a quarter of his school days this year taking or preparing for some kind of test.
Altogether the news could be distressing for the parents and teachers who fear that the culture of testing has become too pervasive in the era of school reform, especially in Tennessee, where the results of state tests are tied to everything from student grades to teacher evaluations. Many complain that kids are overtested and that the focus on testing has fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders stressing over state exams the way college students stress over final exams. They think classrooms have become too focused on tests and that the things that make school meaningful and memorable- hands-on projects, experiments and trips - are too often going by the wayside to make room for testing.
"We are testing our kids to death," said Whitwell Middle School teacher Vicki Wells.
Wells, a language arts teacher, said she isn't opposed to having a standardized test. It's all the tests that build up to it and all the emphasis placed on the results of the one test that bothers her. And it's not just teachers who are feeling the pressure to perform, she said. It's affecting students.
"It almost gets to a point where you feel like you're abusing them mentally," Wells said.
Hamilton County will give its new reading assessment to students in third through eighth grades three times a year, beginning this school year. Kindergarten through second-grade students will get tested twice a year. And officials say the results should help teachers better prepare for the end-of-the-year TCAP, short for the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.
These local tests are needed because of the secrecy surrounding state exams like the TCAP, said Kirk Kelly, director of accountability and testing. Teachers get no detailed report of what items their students miss on TCAP. They only receive "ballpark" topic areas. On a fifth-grade reading test, a teacher receives results on broad categories like vocabulary, logic and communication and media. That's not a very good guide on what things they need to change, Kelly said.
"Tennessee does a lot of great things for accountability," he said. "But most of this is not instructional. And you want it to be instructional."
But the state says there are good reasons for not giving too much feedback from tests back to districts. There are security issues if teachers know exactly what questions are asked and how they're posed. And some could read too much into in-depth results, hinging big teaching decisions on the results of one or two test questions.
The state has no role in the so-called formative assessments that districts and teachers give. Its only role is issuing the once-a-year high-stakes exams, called summative tests. And there's no way for one exam to serve as a broad barometer of overall progress as well as give regular and timely feedback, said Erin O'Hara, assistant commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Education.
"I just think they have different purposes," she said.
But tests like the TCAP do provide the state, districts and teachers with valuable information.
On 2013 tests, the state's students performed well in math, but struggled in reading. O'Hara said even that distinction gives districts direction they need to focus more on reading this year.
"It's important to us to know as well as for schools and districts to know where students are doing well and where they're not performing well," O'Hara said.
But local officials say a detailed report from standardized state exams could go a long way toward improving teaching.
"Teachers don't know what areas of the curriculum their kids aren't doing well in," Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith said of the state exams.
Teaching to test
And some question the point of these multimillion-dollar exams if they're not being used to help teachers teach.
"We're taking all these tests, but they're not being used to improve education," said Jeanne Clements, a former teacher who now runs a New Jersey educational consultancy.
Clements is no enemy of testing. She runs Verbal Education, an ACT and SAT prep company. And she regularly preaches the benefits of "teaching to the test," especially when those tests are covering important skills the way the ACT and SAT do. But she doesn't see the logic with the current emphasis on state exams, especially when their results are rarely used in the classroom.
"Imagine if you were sick and the doctor took an MRI, the results came back and no one went over them, and the doctor told you to go take another MRI," she said.
But Tennessee isn't alone in the way it administers high-stakes tests. Some state testing contracts include detailed reports on test questions and categories for teachers, and some don't, said Karin Hess, a senior associate at the Center for Assessment, which works with districts and state departments of education.
Hess said school districts increasingly are rolling out their own local assessments to help prepare for the big state tests. Some buy off-the-shelf tests from vendors, while others create their own. Hamilton County uses a variety of in-house-designed tests and contracted exams.
The addition of these formative exams is traced to the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which required across-the-board state testing. Though standardized tests already were common, NCLB tied federal dollars to the results of the tests and graded schools based on their performance.
But all the extra testing didn't come immediately, Hess said. Only in the last few years have districts and states on a wide scale ramped up their test prep with the addition of formative assessments. That may be traced to state lawmakers, who continue to raise the stakes of the test results by tying them to teacher pay, teacher evaluation scores and student grades.
District leaders and teachers have more incentive to perform when jobs and dollars are on the line. And as long as that's the case, there's little reason to believe that the emphasis on testing will wane.
"I think the majority of states are going to continue to move in this direction," Hess said.
Under the radar
The formative tests aren't highly publicized like TCAPs. For the big state tests, schools hold pep rallies to get kids amped up. Some bring parents in for meetings and training sessions. There are awards and incentives for good scores.
But local assessments can fly under the radar. They're more integrated throughout the school year and don't get a special day on the school calendar.
Even without a keen awareness of the sheer volume of testing, parents do feel the focus on test scores and the pressure to perform.
Shannon Beattie, a mother of three students at Sale Creek Middle-High, doesn't blame teachers for this fixation on tests. She knows it's coming from the state and federal governments.
But she does notice how testing affects her three sons all year long.
They rarely have homework for weeks leading up to the TCAP, because they spend days drilling in test prep. And once TCAP wraps up in April, she said it's like school is over because the most important event has passed, even though there are weeks left on the academic calendar.
"It seems like there's not much emphasis on learning because they're taking all these tests," she said.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.