Rebecca Horvath Commentary: The testing culture in our schools must change

Rebecca Horvath
By Rebecca Horvath 
The bustling office was as quiet as a cemetery. If an adult spoke at all, it was in the softest possible whisper.


Students in class having an exam in school

A line of preschoolers filed down the hall in utter silence.

You could hear a pin drop.

No, there had not been a grave tragedy; it was testing day in an elementary school.

Across town, high school students taking standardized English tests spent nearly an hour and a half typing essays, only for them to disappear and never be recovered. Other students had to wait so long for their tests to begin that they missed their next class periods, resulting in extra work to catch up on lessons they did not hear. Some students were not able to test at all and teachers who had not needed a lesson plan for the day ended up with wasted instruction time, through no fault of their own. Other kids had great difficulty logging in or submitting their tests, adding to the stress they already felt from testing.

Nearby middle schoolers were faced with low-powered computers that had to be charged before their tests could begin. Then, they spent two hours trying to submit their tests via the crashed state site, through their lunch time, only to have to return after a late lunch and submit them. (Teachers are not allowed to submit them.) Some students waited 90 minutes for the first part of their test to be submitted online so they could continue with the second part. Can you imagine the stress and frustration for students and teachers?

Under normal testing rules, once there is an anomaly in a room of students testing, all tests in the room must be thrown out; if this rule was applied, hundreds of tests were wasted that day.

Scenes like this played out across the state on April 17 as standardized testing began – TN Ready (aka TCAPs) for grades 3 through 8 and EOC (end of course) tests for high schoolers. Similar problems occurred in other parts of the region and state when they started their testing the previous day. This is the third consecutive year that problems have plagued the state testing, including the year when the tests were cancelled entirely at the eleventh hour. Next year, 2nd graders across the state will be subjected to these tests, too.

So, students across the state have spent the entire school year preparing for these tests – the curriculum is designed around them – hearing about how important they are, even having the very school calendar based on testing dates, only to encounter problems immediately.

What, exactly, has the state Department of Education been doing all year, if not preparing all systems for the tests? Did they test out the computer systems prior to testing? Did they not foresee the problems that have plagued the state testing for years?

One problem with the system occurred apparently due to a hacker. Certainly, any technology system can fall victim to a hacker, but weren’t precautions in place? The state Department of Education and the State Education Commissioner, Candice McQueen, should be held accountable for these issues.

The Tennessee State House held an emergency session on the day of all the testing disasters, in an attempt to find immediate solutions. As much as the DoE is responsible for the problems, we must also hold our elected representatives accountable for making changes to the testing culture and processes.

Every hour lost to testing difficulties is wasting tax dollars, increasing the already heavy stress on teachers and frustrating students and parents.

What, exactly, is the purpose here?

Having a way to assess student progress and success is important, of course. We have to be able to see what areas need improvement and what our schools do well. Standardized tests have been around for a long time, but the pressure and the culture that permeates the entire educational system is new. But tests should be tools, not weapons. There isn’t even any proof that tests improve learning or retention.

The entire curriculum is designed around the almighty test. “Teaching to the test” dictates nearly every minute of classroom time in our schools. Teachers have very little room to be creative and flexible in their lesson plans, which causes burnout for many amazing educators.

This testing culture must change. Young children are learning to fear testing, not to love learning. We are not preparing them for the real world, college or the workforce by testing them to death. (Have you ever had to take a test on the job? I haven’t.) We have taken the focus off having passionate teachers, eager-to-learn students and supportive families and made everything about the test.

In an unprecedented display of unity, the state House and Senate approved a “hold-harmless” measure, preventing tests from being used in teacher evaluations or student grades. While that is a step in the right direction, remember that the entire school year has been focused on tests that now mean nothing. True progress will not occur until the tests are entirely scrapped or tremendously diminished.

Change has to happen at the state level, because local leaders have very little control – opting a school system out of testing would sacrifice a huge amount of funding and support. It’s vital that we contact our representatives and the unelected bureaucrats in Nashville who only seem to care about test scores, not the education and well-being of our students and teachers. With the governor’s race coming up, we must elect a person who will address the deep issues in education and work to solve them. Putting a band-aid on the issue after testing has begun is only a temporary solution and does not change the environment around testing; we must keep demanding change until it makes a true difference in education. Our students and our teachers are worth it.

Rebecca Horvath of Johnson City is a wife, mother and community activist. Reach her at

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by all Community Voices columnists are their own and do not necessary reflect those of the Tennessee Ledger.


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