Column: Newton lags behind "less testing, more learning" movement

The Newtonite

by Isabel Joyce
At the end of last year, many teachers wore yellow pins with the motto “less testing, more learning” etched in red and blue into the shiny plastic frame. Despite the limited knowledge and support for the movement last year, this year the “less testing, more learning” mantra has become even more prevalent in Newton’s neighboring towns. Especially with the PSAT moved to a Wednesday this year, North should consider joining and putting a hold on standardized testing to help students grow to be better learners, not better test-takers.
Supporters of the “less testing, more learning” movement fear that teachers spend so much time preparing students for standardized tests that learning time is compromised. They recognize that “teachers assess students all the time to guide instruction,” but the problem “is the excessive amount of testing and the high stakes attached to the results,” according to the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA).
“We are against reducing our students’ accomplishments to their scores on standardized tests. Our students are more than a score,” said president of the MTA, Barbara Madeloni.
Already, Cambridge and Worcester have enacted reforms towards the less testing movement. Cambridge placed a three-year moratorium on all standardized tests (i.e. PARCC and MCAS), and Worcester placed a three-year moratorium on required state tests as a graduation requirement.
Brookline’s Wicked Local recently posted an article to discuss the “rally cry” for less testing, and will likely follow in the footsteps of Cambridge in Worcester by placing a moratorium on high stakes standardized testing. “It’s become clear over time that too much standardized testing is taking away from learning,” said Brookline resident and executive director of Citizens for Public Schools Lisa Guisbond. The high stakes of testing has “had a negative impact on the quality of education.”
In Newton, however, no such changes occurred. Teachers and students have worn pins to show their support for the movement, but currently there is not a collective group of Newton residents who have specifically labeled themselves as a part of the less testing movement.
Students are able to take tests fairly effectively here at North, however the purpose of school is to learn, not take tests. Learning to take tests interferes with learning in general. Both MCAS, which takes one full day of testing, and PARCC, which takes eight days, are graduation requirements. Recently, the PSAT was moved to during the school day as opposed to Saturday mornings, which has fostered much debate about the overuse of standardized tests interfering with school time, as addressed in the editorial of the Newtonite’s Club Day special; “the replacement of classes with the PSAT calls into questions North’s dedication to its core values, as learning, not standardized testing, sustains the human spirit.”
Advanced placement tests at North cost around $96 and occupy school time; students miss classes to take the test and then resume their normal schedule once the exams have finished. Although the tests are technically optional, the stigma around not taking the exam and the consequence of having to take the final at the end of the year instead suggest otherwise.
AP classes themselves are often only taken for the title. In the spring of 2014, “395 students sat for 766 exams in 21 subjects,” according to the North School Profile. The ratio of students to the amount of exams taken reveals that the average student taking an AP test took multiple AP exams. The pressure to take AP classes, as opposed to easier classes, coincides with North’s wide variety of AP classes and the stigma of said AP classes, instead of focusing on an area of interest. Often times, high school students push themselves to the brink of mental and physical exhaustion to keep up with the AP classes, in order to be fully prepared for the AP test near the end of the year. At this point, the ability to learn, rather than test take, has diminished tremendously.
Standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT are still required for most colleges, but more and more schools are deciding to go test-optional. “This shift has saved us significant time and operational expense,” said Jonathan Lash, the president of Hampshire College, which no longer accepts standardized test scores, to the Washington Post. “Without the scores, every other detail of the student’s application became more vivid,” added Lash.
In addition, “some good students are bad test takers, particularly under stress, such as when a test may grant or deny college entry. Multiple-choice tests don’t reveal much about a student,” said Lash.
Hopefully, North will decide to take a stand with the less testing more learning movement, therefore creating a less stressful environment and more successful path for students. The “misuse and abuse” of testing takes away from true growth in learning. Our ultimate goal as a school should be to limit testing and promote learning, after all our school motto is “learning sustains the human spirit,” not “testing sustains the human spirit.”