Why Do We Test Students? Is Testing Unnecessary and Abusive or Raising the Academic Bar and Preparation for Adulthood?

The longer we teach the more we understand that if we expect to influence outcomes we must assess the inputs. How effective is our teaching? The art of teaching is the ongoing checks for understanding that we use a number of times during each lesson. We ask questions, we call on volunteers, non-volunteers, we organize “pair-shares,” a quick writing assignment, an exit slip, at the end of the lesson: did the students “get it?”

Mike Schomker, in Focus  emphasizes these formative assessments,

Of paramount importance is ongoing checking for student understanding (minute by minute, day by day, week by week) and adjusting instruction based on assessment insights (i.e. formative assessment.

Schools, school districts and school systems also “check for understanding,” they check through summative assessments, an end-of-term “test.” In New York State the Regents are summative assessments, content-based tests.

Formative assessments guide our practice, how effective are we from lesson to lesson, what has to be re-taught, what skills or concepts have not been acquired? The grades 3-8 tests, required by federal law, are not content-based; they test the acquisition of standards and are only loosely aligned with day-to-day instruction. In New York City there are about fifty different reading and math programs that schools choose. Some are phonics-based, others not, the same with math programs. They are not curricula, they are programs purchased by the school.

The chancellor just announced the implementation of his latest pet project that he announced in August: Edustats. The lowest achieving schools in New York City, as defined by the state, schools with the lowest scores on state tests, will take an “off-the-shelf” computer-based test three times a year (fall-winter-spring) with a 24-hour turnaround time for teachers to receive results. The tests are not aligned with current reading and math programs used in schools and probably not aligned with state tests.

Many years ago the district with which I worked gave a test in May and in September teachers received a thick binder with a “prescription” for each student. No magic bullets: it didn’t alter practice; teachers knew from their day to day experience what kids are and are not learning. Opportunities for small group instruction, one to one tutoring, and a stable and supportive home environment are keys to improving outcomes, difficult to achieve in under-funded school systems.

Sadly, as The Center for NYC Affairs paper, “A Better Picture of Poverty” shows us, “poverty risk load factors” impact day to day instruction. If a kid is chronically absent or hungry or homeless it impacts learning.

The current grades 3-8 federally mandated testing, part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, is in the law because the major civil rights organizations wanted the disparities in education outcomes highlighted.

“Nineteen groups, including the NAACP and the Children’s Defense Fund, recently released a statement backing the law’s core testing requirement. ‘ESEA must continue to require high-quality, annual statewide assessments for students in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school,’ Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said at a Senate hearing.

Testing has a very long history,

“…the [Chinese civil service examinations] exams were based on knowledge of the classics and literary style, not technical expertise; successful candidates were generalists who shared a common language and culture, one shared even by those who failed. This common culture helped to unify the empire and the ideal of achievement by merit gave legitimacy to imperial rule.”

Today in China, and many other nations, testing is at the core of education system,

“Chinese children must endure years of stress and impossible expectations preparing for their final school exam. The students who do best can look forward to glittering careers and even good marriage prospects. But for the less successful, the system is brutal.”

It should not be surprising that in New York City the single test, the Specialized High School Admittance Test, is so important for Chinese parents.

European nations also require exit examinations,

Teenagers across Europe and beyond are busy preparing or taking the exams they’ve spent years studying for.”


In France the baccalauréat, generally taken at the age of 18, is the gateway to more study or the world of work.

It is the climax of secondary education and comes in three main forms: the general, professional or technological baccalauréat.

Within the general baccalauréat, students can choose to specialise in sciences; economics and social sciences; or literature.

The professional baccalauréat … prepares the student, first and foremost, for the world of work, while the technological one is more geared to moving the pupil towards further technical studies.


Italians take an exam at the end of second school, usually aged 19.

It’s called esame di maturità or maturity exam and around 75 percent of the marks involve written or oral tests.

United Kingdom

Students in the United Kingdom take GCSEs aged 16 and while some will leave school afterwards, most go on to do A-levels.

Students that get A* to C grades have passed, anything else is a fail.

The pass rate in 2016 was 98.1 percent and there is a debate each year over whether the exams are too difficult.


In Germany pupils at Gymnasium schools, which are equivalent to the UK’s grammar system, take the Abitur exam aged 18 or 19.

The test, which is also used in Lithuania, Finland and Estonia, is designed to prepare the student for university.


In Spain, 17-18 year olds take what is unofficially called the Selectividad, formally the EBAU Bachillerato.

Like in France, the pass rate is high. But with more passing, this means the bar is raised for getting into university.

As in other parts of Europe, it is, of course, a big coming-of-age moment. Everyone is very scared and afterwards there is a lot of partying.


The baccalauréat-equivalent in Hungary is érettségi, which is the Hungarian translation of the latin world matura, which means youngsters being mature enough to finish school.

Traditionally, érettségi starts every year on the first Monday of May and lasts until the end of June.

To graduate you have to pass at least five exams: four of them are obligatory for everyone, one of them is optional.

The mandatory subjects are Hungarian grammar and literature, math, history and a foreign or minority language.

The colleges in Europe are what we would call public colleges, funded by the nation, schools without sports teams and without tuition. The secondary school exit exams determine college acceptance.

The trend in the United States is reducing high school exit exams, only eleven states require exit exams, although ESSA requires a test in high school, usually the SAT, ACT, PARRC or Smarter Balance, there is no score required for graduation.

European and Asian nations maintain exit examinations that determine college acceptance or job paths while the United States is lowering the bar.

Testing is not only required in schools, the Civil Service system also has deep roots. From the days of the Spoils System reformers fought to make government jobs based on merit not political spoils and in 1883 the Pendleton Act  established a national civil service examination system that slowly moved to the states. Government jobs required passing a competitive examination. From the early 1900’s to the mid 1970’s New York City maintained a Board of Examiners that required competitive tests for teachers and supervisors. In New York State all prospective teachers must pass three exams before certification.

The chancellor’s new pet project, Edustats, overlaying a testing system on the existing flawed state testing system is a fruitless attempt to increase outcomes. Community schools, collaborative school cultures and leadership, a rich curriculum increases school outcomes, especially when coupled with addressing poverty risk load factors; formative assessments embedded into lessons informs instructional strategies.

I agree with the Long Island Opt Out parents, the current state tests with the heavy emphasis on test preparation interferes with good instruction. I disagree when it comes to content-based exit exams, aka, the Regents. The Opt Out parents object to schools including Regents scores in final grades. I don’t. Yes, tests are stressful, so is life.

Making the final foul shot that determines the game, playing or dancing the solo in the orchestra or band is all stressful. So is finishing an assignment on the job, dealing with stress is part of life. We should teach meditation or yoga or other stress reduction techniques in schools, we shouldn’t run away from challenges.

Testing a third grader is both cruel and unnecessary, content-area testing in middle and high school, testing what is actually taught raises all boats, yes, we need safety needs for children with disabilities and English language learners; however, testing is preparation for life, preparation for the path to adulthood.

2 responses to “Why Do We Test Students? Is Testing Unnecessary and Abusive or Raising the Academic Bar and Preparation for Adulthood?

  1. No more tests,that’s the ticket. Doctors, Lawyers, Police, FBI, Teachers, no more tests, Yep, that’s the way to go….


  2. Pingback: Do Students in the Big Five, Rural Schools and Low-Wealth Districts Receive the Same Rigorous, Robust, Well-Balanced, Coherent Curriculum as Students in High-Wealth Districts? | Ed In The Apple

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s