Is there a happy medium for standardized testing?

It's MCAS day here in Massachusetts. For those of you not familiar with our oft-maligned system of testing students for proficiency in math, English, science, and US history, MCAS stands for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

It's MCAS day here in Massachusetts. For those of you not familiar with our oft-maligned system of testing students for proficiency in math, English, science, and US history, MCAS stands for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. It's all part of No Child Left Behind and a general sense that we need to do a better job making sure that kids, regardless of where they go to school, are learning at least a core set of subjects.

Seems like a fine idea, right? We get lots of data back from the state and can analyze specific areas of weakness by student or across the board, ideally allowing us to have "data-driven instruction." Again, this doesn't seem like a bad idea. In fact, it sounds downright useful. The problem, however lies in the way that the testing must drive the entire educational process instead of assessing the success of individualized approaches.

This year's 10th graders must pass three of the four tests above to graduate. Next year's 10th graders must pass all four. Future years will need to pass assessments in languages, as well as other subjects that are up for discussion. On a macro level, schools are assessed, ranked, and judged based on their "adequate yearly progress" in increasing scores in all of these areas.

What this boils down to is that we teach to the test. We're not supposed to, but the test itself is rigorous enough that it leaves little wiggle room. We spend several days out of the year administering the test, run classes, weekend, and nighttime sessions to remediate and help students achieve advanced scores, and we carefully build our classes around the topics we know will be on the test.

Non-native English speakers? You have a year to be ready to take the test. The Hispanic names they throw into story problems aren't much comfort to our growing Spanish-speaking population.

Isn't there an in between? Any chance we could take a day of testing and make sure the kids can write a cohesive essay, solve reasonable problems in algebra and geometry, show a reasonable understanding of geography, and call it good? I remember taking the California Achievement Tests as a kid (and always wondering why Washington wasn't cool enough to have its own tests). My parents and I received some basic feedback on areas of strength and weakness, my teachers taught relevant and timely content, and I could write an essay like you wouldn't believe.

There has to be a better way than drilling kids in MCAS style questions in all of their classes, just to make sure we aren't penalized for not making adequate yearly progress, or to ensure that our special education and ESL populations get to graduate. Anyone outside the States care to weigh in on assessment systems? What works out there in the rest of the world?