What the Testing Juggernaut in America's Schools Gets So Wrong About Education


T.S. Eliot told us that April is the cruelest month. In the world of K-12 education, that couldn’t be more true as the month ushers in the beginning of testing season in public schools across the nation.

“Spring testing season starts,” notes Politico, referring to April’s rollout of standardized testing across the nation, but many students and parents appear to be anything but happy about that.

The reporters point to an elementary school in Chattanooga, Tennessee where more than 200 students, including the child of a state lawmaker, have refused to take the test. In Illinois, officials overseeing the tests are in a quandary for how to deal with test refusal rates that reached as high as 10 percent in some districts last year. In Pennsylvania, test refusal rates that “nearly tripled from 2014 to 2015, are “expected to grow this year.” In New York, where over 220,000 students refused to take state standardized tests last year, state leaders have promised parents fewer questions will be on the tests this year and students will have unlimited time to complete their exams. But parents are vowing to boycott them anyway. InWashington state, where more than half of 11th graders refused to take tests last spring, officials are trying to calm the revolt this year, Politico notes.

Other news outlets report the rise in test refusals as well. Another media source in Tennesseenotes, “the opt-out wave” is gaining traction around the Volunteer State. A Colorado outlet reports that more than 65,000 students refused the tests last year, reaching 31 percent for 11th grade math and 25 percent for 10th grade math. School administrators are bracing for a similar if not higher rate of refusals this year.

In Houston, Texas, parents have organized an opt-out movement endorsed by the local teachers’ union. Parents organizing an opt-out movement in New Jersey have printed and distributed over 1,000 lawn signs urging families to boycott the tests. Recently, as The Washington Post reports, “More than 100 education researchers in California have joined in a call for an end to high-stakes testing,” saying that new tests based on Common Core State Standards won’t “improve the quality of education” and lack “validity, reliability and fairness.”

What’s all the fuss about? Aren’t there good reasons for the testing?

As Politico quotes the state superintendent of education in Washington state Randy Dorn saying, “Testing helps districts determine if they are meeting the needs of all their students equitably and fairly, or if they should make adjustments. It helps families know how their child is doing in school and whether he or she needs more help or more academic challenges.”

What could be wrong with that?

Tests Don’t Inform Teachers and Parents

First, the tests are not optional; the federal government mandates them.

Also, the tests don’t serve purposes that are as clear and reasonable as superintendent Dorn would have us believe.

When Dorn explains that the tests help “families know how their child is doing,” that assumes the tests serve a diagnostic role in which the grading of the test would lead to specific instructional interventions from parents and teachers. But, that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.

As high school teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene explains, the tests aren’t designed as much for “determining if your student has acquired the knowledge and skill [a teacher] tried to teach her” as they’re designed “to be easily gradable by a person who doesn’t even know what the test is about.” Indeed, the tests are often machine-gradable or they’re graded in remote locations by temporary workers.

Further, Greene explains, unlike traditional tests, standardized tests set the passing score after the test has been taken, and at a mark to guarantee a certain percentage of failures.

“No matter how well the students of your state do, some of them will fail,” Greene writes, and, “students will not be able to find out what they need to do” to pass.

What’s more, Green doesn’t mention, the scores become public long after students have moved to other curriculum or even to another grade level. As the report about test refusals in Tennessee cited above points out, “This year’s scores won’t be returned until October, rendering them largely useless to teachers since students already will have started new classes by then.”

Tests Don’t Measure Education Quality

Superintendent Dorn’s assertion that standardized tests help measure education quality is also questionable.

Assessment expert James Popham explains, “Employing standardized achievement tests to ascertain educational quality is like measuring temperature with a tablespoon.”

First, because test makers are far removed from the classroom, and teachers generally have very little knowledge of how standardized tests are created, “there’s almost certain to be a significant mismatch between what’s taught and what’s tested,” Popham argues. As an example, Popham cites a study from Michigan that found, “50 and 80 percent of what was measured on the tests was not suitably addressed in the textbooks.”

Also because of the need for guaranteed failures, the tests purposefully exclude material that the school may have done a bang-up job teaching. Test makers shoot for questions that “are answered correctly by 40 to 60 percent of the students.”

Last, every parent and teacher knows that every child has different way of being smart. But test makers, Popham argues, design their instruments for students who have a particular way of being smart.

For a test to ascertain the effect of the school, there must be test items included that quiz students on knowledge and abilities that are not readily modifiable in school. This criterion invariably favors students with a particular “in-born intellectual abilities,” Popham’s words, or, perhaps, with a particular cultural background and understanding of the world that isn’t universal to all children.

“Educators should definitely be held accountable,” Popham concludes, “But to evaluate educational quality by using the wrong assessment instruments is a subversion of good sense.”

Why We’re Doing This

“High-stakes tests were born in China to sort their society more than 1,500 years ago,” explains education professor Julian Vasquez Heilig. In the U.S., they’ve been used for the last 100 years “to sort and track children.”

For the past decade, Heilig writes, because of our nation’s emphasis on test scores, schools have dramatically increased the time students spend on testing and test preparation. One study indicated urban students are subjected to an average of 112 standardized tests during their school years. Moreover, research shows that time spent on testing has diminished time for science, social studies, art, second language studies, and recess.

According to Heilig, civil rights advocates begin to question the use of standardized tests some 40 years ago, challenging their use in a lawsuit file by the NAACP in 1979 based on the negative impact of tests on minority students. When the court ruled against the NAACP, concluding that tests actually had the power to “eradicate racism,” this led to “a policy makeover,” Heilig argues, that transformed standardized tests from a “sorting mechanism into a civil-rights cause. Never mind that high-stakes exit tests have had a clearly disparate impact on students of color, compounding the effects of severe inequality and underfunding of schools.”

The truth everyone knows is that America’s education is vastly unequal in how it educates children, and it’s in undeniable fact that students of lesser income, and who aren’t white, struggle the most. But while testing can make something already well understood even more apparent, it’s of little use in determining what to do about the inequity.

As Seattle high school teacher Jesse Hagopian explains in a new TedTalk video, the thinking behind incessant testing is akin to treating a child suffering from hypothermia by repeatedly taking his or her temperature. What’s really required instead of more measurement is “to wrap that child in a blanket,” he argues, in this case a “blanket” of extra health, counseling, and academic services, such as medical care, free meals, specialists, smaller class sizes, and after school and summer programs.

Instead Of Testing

To help relieve some of the test obsession, a number of states have recently cut back on the number of standardized tests being given, and the federal government has provided stateswith steps for how to decrease testing. Yet nothing appears to be slowing the test rollout this spring.

The latest obsession, for instance, is to develop and use new tests, not for assessing academic knowledge and skills, but to ascertain how well schools and teachers have shaped children’s character, such as their self-control, reflection, and persistence. As social scientist Angela Duckwork recently noted with concern in her New York Times op-ed, nine California school districts are adding “measures of character into their accountability systems” this testing season.

Duckworth warns against the use of feedback on character as “a metric for judging the effectiveness of teachers and schools. We shouldn’t be rewarding or punishing schools for how students perform on these measures.”

As an alternative to standardized tests, Hagopian calls for “authentic assessment” or “performance-based assessment” that can include problem-solving projects, presentations, and academic reviews of a body of student work.

“What teachers need,” Popham asserts, “are assessment instruments that measure worthwhile skills or significant bodies of knowledge.” He suggests assessing “students’ mastery of genuinely significant cognitive skills, such as their ability to write effective compositions, their ability to use lessons from history to make cogent analyses of current problems, and their ability to solve high-level mathematical problems.”

Heilig believes the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new federal law that replace the No Child Left Behind laws imposing standardized tests, may provide an avenue to ridding our system from the overload of harmful measurement. ESSA, according to Heilig, “allows states to introduce a dashboard of approaches to evaluate the success of states, districts, schools, teachers and students, with standardized test results used as just a single factor in these evaluations.”

“ESSA could usher in a new era,” Heiling concludes, “in which communities will be able to use high quality assessments including student performances, portfolios, and presentations instead of high stakes standardized tests.”

Let’s hope Heilig’s optimism is warranted. In the meantime, spring testing season seems to feel a lot more like the winter of our discontent.

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