Testing is a hot topic these days. I was impressed by the number of parents and teachers who came to Jamie Mathieson’s presentation on testing recently. And I really liked what one teacher had to say about opportunity cost. He wasn’t talking about the dollar cost (but I will in a minute), he was talking about the cost in terms of time.
First, there’s instructional time spent preparing for tests instead of learning new material. We don’t just take the test. At the elementary level we practice the specific vocabulary of each test (passage means story, theme means main idea). We practice the format of each test (Which of the following questions is answered in paragraph 3?). And we practice the directions on the test (Choose all answers that apply). This takes a lot of time with 8 year olds. We’re encouraged to do it because the division is measured by the SOLs and the teacher is measured by Interactive Achievement (ia) and MAP.
Then instructional time is spent taking the tests. The actual test may take only one or two hours, but add in time spent organizing 25 little ones to head to the computer lab (after snack, get your books, EVERYONE goes to the bathroom). Add in settling down and logging on (Joey cannot sit next to Sally, at least 4 of them can’t remember their usernames and passcodes – because they’re 8). Then we wait for almost everyone to finish (from the 15 minute kids who click away to the 2 hour kids who labor over every question). Throw in lunch and recess (highly recommended) and the better part of a whole day is gone. Do this several times a year for MAP, ia, and SOLs. Do it for several subjects (reading, math and sometimes science and social studies). Then split up reading and math into two day administrations (for third grade SOLs in May) and a lot of time has left the classroom and evaporated into the stuffy air of the computer lab.
We’re told that these tests yield all kinds of valuable information to guide individualized instruction. This may be true. However, a good teacher already knows this information about her students, and much more reliably than a one shot test can reveal. The opportunity cost of pouring over copious amounts of data provided by MAP and Interactive Achievement is time teachers would much rather spend planning new experiences, improving old lessons, and creating assessments that are less standardized and more unique to the instruction of each group of learner. A teacher can’t do it all. The time spent analyzing test data has a price.
Finally, the tests themselves have a price reported by Jamie Mathieson to be $10/student for MAP plus $10-$15/student for ia. I find things rather meaningless without a comparison. Here’s one for you. I get $100 per year to spend on my classroom. That’s about $4/student. The division pays 5-6 times more for testing than it provides me supply money for teaching. Talk about opportunity cost.
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