In Missoula, Tester unveils legislation to reduce federally required testing in public schools

by Missoula Current, Martin Kidston

Joined by Missoula teachers and students, Sen. Jon Tester on Tuesday announced legislation that would do away with standardized tests and give local school districts more control over the education and assessment of their students.

Standing in the foyer of Sentinel High School, Tester said his new bill would replace federally mandated tests, required annually, with three standardized tests offered once in elementary, middle and high school.

“It will reduce the number of required tests, and that gives Montanans the say they should have in their educational process,” Tester said. “It’s something that makes sense and puts control back into the hands of the people that should have it. It will allow students to have far more time – instructional time in the classroom.”

Tester, a former school teacher, said the U.S. Department of Education currently requires as many as 17 standardized tests throughout a student’s career, starting in elementary school and continuing through high school.

The time required to prepare for the tests robs time needed for classroom instruction. What’s more, Tester said, the high-stakes approach places unnecessary stress on the students, teachers and family.

“The most important thing a teacher has and the most important thing that a student has is that instructional time in the classroom,” Tester said. “When you’re preoccupied with taking tests and teaching the test, it takes away the ability to teach kids how to think and think critically, and be able to be successful in the society we live in.”

While standardized tests have long been a part of the nation’s educational process, their use increased when the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2002. Supporters say the tests are a fair and objective way of assessing a student’s achievement, and that teachers and school districts are held accountable to taxpayers.

But opponents say the tests are neither fair nor objective, and their overuse serves to undermine a teacher’s ability to produce critical thinkers. Supporters of Tester’s proposed legislation say the measure strikes a balance between taxpayer accountability and classroom creativity.

“Teachers seek every possible opportunity to engage, challenge, inspire and motivate their students in becoming lifelong learns,” said Melanie Charlson. “Our current system of annual standardized tests in grades 3-8, and again in high school, stifles those enriching and creative lessons and replaces that time with test prep and anxiety for our students, teachers, administrators and families at home.”

Charlson, vice president of the MEA-MFT Board of Directors and a member of the Missoula Education Association, said No Child Left Behind expanded standardized testing to all grades, increasing stress levels as a result.

Much of the cost of standardized testing, estimated at $2 billion nationally, is funneled to for-profit companies, robbing local school districts of valuable resources, she added.

“We prefer public dollars remain with our public-school students and educators,” said Charlson. “This bill provides a reasonable balance of a standardized measure once through the elementary-grade band of 3-5, once again in band 6-8, and one standardized test during high school years.”

Mark Thane, superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools, said that while efforts to roll back certain requirements in No Child Left Behind showed promise, they fell short of their goal. As a result, districts remain burdened with repeated requests for standardized testing.

While assessing a student’s academic progress is necessary, he added, the current system isn’t working. Completed at a cost of billions of dollars, the data often comes back to late to inform an educator’s instructional practice.

“Assessment is important and it’s critical for our students,” said Thane. “But it’s important that we have formative assessment – assessment that can be conducted where we get real-time results and teachers can utilize that information to inform their classroom instruction.”