Overtesting?

Are Mississippi’s public school students overtested? Yes, but not in the way most educators who make that claim say.

The problem is not the standardized tests that the state requires the schools to administer every spring, starting in the third grade.

The problem is with all the tests that some districts implement to try to get their students ready for the real thing.

A report recently released by the education policy group Mississippi First suggests that the problem is especially pronounced in districts where the test results tend to be substandard.

The nonprofit, which advocates for school reform, surveyed the testing load at two unidentified D-rated districts and two A-rated districts. Although this is not enough of a sampling to be statistically valid, the results are still worth considering.

The survey found that students in the four districts on average spent about eight hours a year taking state-mandated exams — less than 1 percent of the entire academic year. That doesn’t sound onerous at all for what is an objective way to verify whether schools are actually teaching much.

What may be counterproductive, though, is how much time is spent on test prep, especially in lower-performing districts. In one of the D-rated districts, a typical fifth-grader spent 50 hours on district-mandated tests to get ready for the state ones, according to the study. That compared to just six hours for a fifth-grader in an A-rated district.

Teachers in both D-rated districts said they were told to stop trying to teach any new material after three-fourths of the school year was finished, but to instead concentrate all their instructional time on intensive test preparation.

No wonder kids in struggling schools continue to struggle. What could be more boring than constant test drilling — all in the hope of making teachers and administrators look better when the results come in. It’s also arguably self-defeating, as all that time spent on test prep is time not spent on developing the knowledge base that the tests measure.

This overtesting is not the fault of the state mandates but rather a perversion of them by school districts themselves. The state does not require all these assessments and test prep. Those are decisions made at the local level.

If the schools are doing what they should — communicating knowledge to students, developing their academic skills and fostering in them a love for learning — the state tests will take care of themselves.

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