As Testing Season Opens In Schools, Some Ask: How Much Is Too Much?

Students, parents and teachers often argue that American students take too many standardized tests — but how many do they really take? A visit to one high school in Rockville, Md., offers an answer.

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If you're a high school student or you have one at home, then you know it's testing season. America's teenagers spend countless hours taking standardized state and district tests, not to mention the alphabet soup of SAT, ACT, AP, and the list goes on.

Well, that got the NPR Ed Team wondering how many such tests can a high school student take in a year - five, 10, 20, or none of the above? Claudio Sanchez went looking for an answer to that question. And he wanted to find out how much testing is too much.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: For lots of students at Rockville High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, one test is one test too many. But we're not talking about just one test.

JACK BERRIGAN: The amount of tests you'll take is probably up around 70 or 60 tests, something like that.

HOPE BASIL: It might even be more. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

SANCHEZ: That's Hope Basil and Jack Berrigan, both 18 and seniors. They have to take unit exams in every class plus state-mandated midterm and end of semester exams in at least five subjects. If you're an English language learner, you have to take two extra standardized tests. But for juniors and seniors, the tests that matter most are college entrance exams like the ACT and SAT. If they're enrolled in honors courses, advanced placement or International Baccalaureate, better known as the I.B., there are even more tests.

This adds up to 20 to 30 tests this semester, plus the time they have to spend preparing for them.

LINDSAY JUNKINS: Hey, guys. You're going to take two minutes to read the problem that has a check mark next to it. So there is - it's either on the front or the back. So you need to figure out which problem you have to read and...

SANCHEZ: For a month now, math teacher Lindsay Junkins has been drilling students for next month's I.B. math exam.

JUNKINS: And write down key words, topics or formulas that you need to do the problem. And you have two minutes to do that.

SANCHEZ: Sure, tests are stressful, says Jack Berrigan but so is life.

BERRIGAN: You're learning how to handle a high pressure situation.

SANCHEZ: Hope Basil disagrees.

BASIL: I think the mindset that we've developed toward testing has kind of been damaging overall.

SANCHEZ: Hope says teachers are forced to teach to the test. Students who don't prepare panic and cheat. And worst of all, says Hope, testing takes up time that could be better spent doing something more meaningful and interesting in class.

So is all this testing a bit too much?

JOSHUA STARR: So I don't know if that's actually the right question.

SANCHEZ: Joshua Starr is superintendent of Montgomery County's public schools.

STARR: I think the question has to be are we giving the right kinds of assessments.

SANCHEZ: When it comes to those state tests, Starr says, the answer is a resounding no.

STARR: The current standardized tests that every child has to take every year, those are worthless in helping teachers actually plan instruction. And the teachers see that and they're caught betwixt and between. And I've said to them, I do not care about Maryland's state assessment results, do not focus attention on it.

SANCHEZ: Easier said than done says Michael Petrilli, with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Petrilli says since No Child Left Behind became law in 2001, government mandated tests have tripled and the stakes have gotten higher. In half the states, kids can't graduate if they don't pass an exit exam - all in the name of accountability.

Ideally, says Petrilli, with rigorous academic standards, all you need are one or two good tests to know whether kids are ready for college or work. He says in the past, states spent tons of money on lots of tests that didn't really matter because...

MICHAEL PETRILLI: The standards didn't matter. They were so vague that nobody paid attention to them. What became the standard was what was on the test. And what was on the test were these low level skills. And then, that encouraged teachers who were very focused on test scores to teach these low level skills.

SANCHEZ: Montgomery County schools superintendent Joshua Starr says standardized tests are like diet pills - you take them because you hope they're going to help you look better, even though they're no substitute for eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep.

STARR: We have to get off the diet pills in public education.

SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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