How much is too much time spent on testing in schools?

September 13, 2013 at 1:57 am 4 comments


Exactly how much standardized testing are school districts subjecting students to these days? A nearly staggering amount, according to a new analysis.

“Testing More, Teaching Less: What America’s Obsession with Student Testing Costs in Money and Lost Instructional Time,” released by the American Federation of Teachers, looks closely at two unnamed medium-sized school districts — one in the Midwest and one in the East — through the prism of their standardized testing calendars.

via How much time do school districts spend on standardized testing? This much..

This article is worth blogging on for two reasons:

First, my colleagues in the UK were stunned when I told them that most tests that students take in US schools are locally invented.  “Doesn’t that lead to alot of wasted effort?”  Perhaps so — this report seems to support my claim.

Second, I don’t find that much testing either staggering nor undesirable.  Consider the results on the Testing Effect — students learn from testing.  20 hours in an academic year is not too much, if we think about testing as driving learning.  We don’t know if these are good or useful tests, or if they are being used in a way that might motivate more learning, so 20 hours isn’t obviously a good thing.  But it’s also not obviously a bad thing.

Consider the results of the paper presented by Michael Lee at ICER 2013 this year (and which won the “John Henry Award,” the people’s choice best paper award).  They took a video game that required programming (Gidget) and added to it explicit assessments — quizzes that popped up at the end of each level, to ask you questions about what you did.  They found that such assessments actually increased engagement and time-on-task.  Their participants (both control and experimental) were recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, so they were paid to complete more levels.  Adding assessments led to more levels completed and less time per level — that’s pretty remarkable.


Maybe what we need is not fewer tests, but better and more engaging tests.


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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Leonard C. Klein  |  September 13, 2013 at 7:24 am

    I wonder how much time you are willing to take from your university teaching time for these types of tests? If it is such a good idea why are the universities not rushing into this to improve what they do?

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  September 13, 2013 at 10:33 am

      Leonard, I actually spend a lot of time in my classes testing. I use peer instruction, and last week, I did an hour long class with PhD students as a continuous quiz-and-discussion about FERPA and related issues. Most of my PI classes are 20-30% testing.

      But we are talking apples and oranges. You’re saying “these type of tests.” As I say at the end of the post, we need better and more engaging tests. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “these type,” but I suspect that they’re different than what I’m seeing as being useful for learning.

      • 3. Leonard C. Klein  |  September 13, 2013 at 11:28 am

        I am thinking of the state standardized or federal tests the K-12 are subjected to. From what I understand universities do not want “outsiders” telling them what tests to give.
        I agree that assessment is necessary and should be done often. It is the tests like the Va. SOL testing and all the time given over to test prep and not instruction that I object to.


  • […] I was honored to serve on Michael Lee’s dissertation committee. Mike’s basic thesis is available at this link, or you can get the jumbo-expanded edition with an enormous appendix describing everything in his software plus his learning evaluation (described below) at this link. His thesis brings together several studies he’s done on Gidget, his game in which he teaches programming. I’ve written about his work before, like his terrific finding that including assessments improves engagement in his game (see blog post here) and about how Gidget offers us a new way to think about assessing learning (see blog post here). […]


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