The Program for International Student Assessment, an international assessment that measures high school students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy, determined that students from the United States are below the global average for developed countries. Unlike top-rated countries like Finland, Denmark, and Sweden, the United States emphasizes standardized testing, long hours in and after school, and academic competitiveness. We also provide strict legal requirements for each school both on the federal and state level that increasingly force tests and standards into district policies. These policies are oftentimes out of touch and rarely incorporate the actual needs.
Finland chooses to value collaboration and improvement over performance and test results. Not only does the entire country require only one standardized test (that is optional and only for students desiring higher education) but within schools, students experience far less frequent testing. When testing occurs in Finnish schools, which is rare, students do not receive a letter grade. Instead, they are marked on a scale from “needs improvement” to “very good.” And these results are typically for the teacher to assess how to better educate the students, and are not published for students or parents.
By contrast, in the United States, we value high test scores as a representation of our academic success. For example, at La Cañada High School, The governing board has outlined testing policies, stating, “The effectiveness of the schools, teachers and district shall be evaluated on the basis of these student assessments.” Like many schools, we see test results as a sign of success for students and a measure of learning. Yet the highest rated educational systems do not use testing at all, and instead value a student’s improvement and well-being through summative assessments and projects. A 2017 study indicated that “test anxiety was significantly and negatively related to a wide range of educational performance outcomes, including standardized tests, university entrance exams, and grade point average” (Embse). Testing has been empirically proven to degrade the success of a student in school. Not only is testing counter-productive to education, it takes a toll on students’ mental health.
The first issue is excessive grading and testing. Teachers should be required to substitute some testing with equally weighted projects. More specifically, there should be a policy of a 3:1 ratio of tests to projects, that are equally weighted. This means for every three exams that a teacher gives students, they must also give one project that is of equal weight in the gradebook. This way, especially for AP classes, teachers will be able to adequately prepare students for testing that is unfortunately an inevitable part of higher education, while also relieving some pressure for the students.
A test assesses a student’s knowledge on a particular day, ignoring outside effects like family issues, personal problems, or sickness which may hinder a student’s ability to perform. Projects, however, are performed over a larger period of time, giving the student more flexibility to cope with issues that may arise, and better represents the reality of most professional career choices where projects and research are valued over test results. But these projects must also be designed in order to truly educate students properly. A study by Buck University found, “A project is meaningful if it fulfills two criteria. First, students must perceive it as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well. Second, a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose” (Larmer). In order to meet this criteria, teachers from each department should work together to create these projects, and students should have an opportunity at the end of each year to provide feedback to their teachers about how meaningful and educational they felt the projects were. Thus, teachers will be able to ensure that replacing a portion of testing with more creative projects is actually effective for the students.
The La Canada School District has outlined clear guidelines for homework requirements, stating that LCUSD “values quality over quantity” and outlines the amount of homework time expected for each class: 30 minutes for a regular class, 45 minutes for honors, and 60 minutes for AP classes. The National PTA recommends that students do 90 minutes of homework in ninth grade, 100 in tenth, 110 in eleventh, and 120 in twelfth grade. If a student takes only regular level courses, they will be doing 180 minutes a night and a student, taking a more rigorous course load, could possibly spend 360 minutes a night just doing homework, far above the recommended amount of time spent to ensure the health and education of students.
A study by Stanford University found that “homework practices in privileged, high-performing schools sustain students’ advantage in competitive climates yet hinder learning, full engagement, and well-being.” It also found that excess homework led to greater stress among students, having less than 1 percent of students cite that homework was not a stressor. This means a regular class should have 15 minutes of homework a night, honors class 30 minutes, and AP 45 minutes. Chairs of each department should be responsible for communicating with all teachers as well as students to ensure that these policies are upheld. This would entail monthly reports to the administration that outline how the policies are being upheld from both the students’ and teachers’ perspectives. Because of the subjectiveness of “quality over quantity” and the discrepancy between what a student experiences doing homework and what the teacher expects, it is absolutely necessary that the student have an equal voice in the process.
Our current policies are oftentimes out of touch and rarely incorporate the actual needs of students because we fail to incorporate the voices of students, teachers, and research to improve our schools. Even on a local level, parents and administrators often make more decisions than students, teachers, and studies. If decisions were made on the basis of student well-being and long term success, students, teachers, parents, and the future of America would be better off.