Guest Commentary

Robert Reys: Too much testing, too little control for math teachers

Testing and overtesting have become big problems in education today.
Testing and overtesting have become big problems in education today. The Associated Press

It is difficult to be a mathematics teacher and it gets harder each year. It is not the students, it is not the mathematics courses, it is not the advances in technology, and it is not the changing school demographics. Rather it is the increasing barrage of testing over which classroom teachers have virtually no control.

My wife and I both taught high school mathematics in Missouri (and our son is now a mathematics teacher at Park Hill High School). We reflect on the “good old days” when no state mandated tests existed. Only teacher-constructed tests assessed what mathematics students had learned and still needed to learn. There was no competition between schools or districts on tests.

Pressure on teachers and students to perform well on state tests continues to increase. Schools, mathematics teachers and their students are in a reactive mode. Waiting for the tests to arrive — administrating them (following very specific instructions to protect confidentiality and provide a common test taking environment) — and then waiting for the results. Often by the time the results reach teachers, their students have moved on.

In 2015 our state legislature passed a provision to eliminate funding for Smarter Balanced testing and instead required the state to develop a “new” state test in mathematics and English/language arts. So instead of having any common benchmarks that would have been available from the Smarter Balanced Consortium, Missouri is going it alone and has allocated millions of dollars for another test development. The test form and how the tests will be used remain unknown. The only thing certain is that more testing is on the horizon.

This continuous movement toward increased testing has a winner and many losers. Testing companies are winners. Companies such as Pearson are a major player in developing national and state tests. It is strange that some Missouri legislators who criticized Common Core because it is a federal mandate (which it is not) have not been outraged that Pearson (a British owned company with headquarters in the U.K.) is such a dominant force in testing students.

As a mathematics teacher, I can’t imagine that the algebra test for Missouri will be much different from that in another state, which increases the profit margin for the test company. (Are you surprised?)

On the other hand, there are many losers — starting with students, who will spend additional time preparing for and taking the test. Teachers lose control over the tests and fall victim to whatever lack of alignment exists between what they have been teaching and what is being tested. Parents are losers as more of their tax money is going to be spent on funding all aspects of testing — from construction to scoring — rather than on instruction and student support.

My hope is that something will reshape this testing movement in Missouri. Maybe a solution will come from professional organizations or from more students boycotting tests. Maybe it will come from classroom teachers uniting to turn the testing tide around. Or from local boards of education who say enough is enough. Maybe it will come from educating legislators and helping them become better informed about the testing movement, its costs and unintended consequences.

Perhaps eventually an alliance formed by these groups will work together to bring some sanity into the excessive testing in classes that exists in too many schools today. I truly hope so.

Robert Reys is curators professor emeritus of mathematics education at the University of Missouri in Columbia.