Plotting the Timely Death of Standardized Testing in our Public Schools

Momentum is growing against high-stakes standardized tests as experts size up the damage to kids and teachers from the misguided measuring sticks.

It’s hard to ignore daily stories about the plight of U.S. public schools, losing their funding, staffing and enrichment while classroom sizes burst grotesquely out of control, start times spring forward and student lunch hours get slashed in half.

But there is even more damage to the government-promoted kill and drill approach than meets the eye.

Educators standing up against standardized testing predict a growing gap in our ability to solve the enormous challenges awaiting the 21st century – fixing a broken global economy, curing impenetrable super bugs, ending hunger, democratizing healthcare and harnessing alternative energy – without the kind of critical, creative and collaborative thinkers society desperately needs.

Where are those idiosyncratic, forward-thinking problem solvers of the future? Being sacrificed by misguided lawmakers and a cottage industry of private companies getting rich on testing materials. In other words, it is impossible to breed what we need when there is a fixation on testing and test scores.

Such is the disturbing picture presented by crusaders for the National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing introduced in April 2012 – and gaining momentum –  as frustrated teachers, angry parents and school boards attempt to take back their power to make learning more appropriate, progressive and yes, even fun.

More than 250 organizations have endorsed the resolution, including the Race to Nowhere , credited with the groundbreaking film exposing the national epidemic of stressed out kids pushed beyond their cognitive levels. The tests are seen as an integral aspect of this race masterminded by the military-industrial complex and supported by parents eager for their children to shine at everything from calculus to piano and water polo.

No Child Left Behind became federal law under the Bush Administration in 2002,  ushering in the era of high stakes testing used systematically to evaluate student performance and to link those performances to federal funding in a given district. Scores decide student grade promotion, high school graduation, college admissions and other important criteria. Not only is the focus on scores problematic for many kids, the Obama Administration expanded test results to also assess teachers and principals and to weed out the perceived slackers accordingly.

While perhaps well intended as a way to compete with other industrialized countries on the world stage, critics argue the focus on scores as paramount to all else has perverted the quality of education and forged the narrowing of curriculum to the determent of the poor, the gifted or highly creative child as well as the passionate, over-taxed teacher.

“Tests of student achievement were never designed to be sensitive to variations in instructional practices, yet it’s a fast and easy thing since they have the data at their disposal and figure they might as well use it,” observes Jane Close Conoley, Dean of the Gervitz Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “It’s intuitive to believe if you are a good teacher, your students should test well, but the tests are not a true growth measure but just a snapshot that doesn’t take into account where the children started and how far they have grown from that point.”

Conoley, who has worked on developing statewide standards for evaluating teachers, argues a teacher might have kids who started out the year in the 10th percentile and ended the year in the 20th percentile but are still failing. Or, the teacher might have moved them from the 10th percentile to the 40th but if the current standard is 65 percent, the teacher still fails.

“The only fair way to use the test to evaluate a teacher is to say that children are randomly assigned along teachers, but we know this isn’t true,” she says.

Research also shows the time period devoted to testing distorts the results. “The evaluation needs to be done over a period of multiple measurements and not in one year,” Conoley points out. “New studies show to do a credible job to evaluate teachers takes multiple visits by an administrator watching the teacher teach, adding students’ evaluations to that. Then you get a pretty good idea of how teachers perform. I understand the political world and the policy world would love a single measure, but it is grossly unfair.”

Exhibit by angry educators participating in the Occupy DOE rally in Washington D.C.

The unfairness prompted a recent Occupy DOE rally in Washington D.C., as 50 brave teachers, parents, principals and health professionals from around the country gathered to protest the negative and punitive effects of putting high stakes testing above high standards.

Among those arguing testing does little to encourage curiosity, creativity and innovation of in-depth learning was Dr. Linda Nathan, founding headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy (BAA), the city’s first and only public high school for the visual and performing arts, and author of the book, The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test – Lessons from an Innovative Public School.

“I’m willing to take an extreme position because these tests do weed out artistic kids,” she shares, adding that parents need to question why their kid’s math and science loads are doubling while the library and the arts are disappearing. “I’m not against tests and high standards. I’m against pushing every kid through the narrowest eye of the needle. What we want in this society are kids who can solve problems creatively, not just do well on bubble tests.”

Nathan says one radical approach has been to allow kids to opt out of taking standardized tests, a controversial issue covered recently in the Miami Herald. But that can be a slippery slope in her district where poor minorities rely on results to rise above. “If you score a four in Massachusetts, you will get a free ride, a John and Abigail Adams scholarship, so how can you tell someone from low economics not to take the test?” she wonders.

Nathan fears the consequences of eliminating programs now considered wasteful in order to excel in basic skills. “When we took on high stakes testing as a society, we refused to admit kids might learn a hell of a lot more if they also knew how to play the flute. We got trapped because we focused only on reading and math and narrowed the curriculum to make sure all kids met the floor and not the ceiling. We threw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Test results posted by a proud parent showing the percent of correct answers

Never mind that multiple-choice, true-or-false, or fill-in the blank tests are subjective and based on who designed the test. Nathan says if anything, they shed light on the most vulnerable kids who aren’t learning to the standards necessary. Teachers can’t allow those kids to hide any longer. At the same time, she points out some states like Texas find convenient ways to get around the tests, resulting in a racist system in which some segments of the population are kept down while others receive an interesting education.

“Real estate agencies rank towns by kids’ tests scores,” she says. “That’s the world we are living in right now. Text book companies also are involved in making tests so you have to wonder who is making money on this? Kids are supposed to improve but one of my teachers, Joy, taught the hardest kids in math this year, kids with special needs and behavioral problems who are going to struggle on standardized tests for all sorts of reasons, not because they are stupid. Should Joy be penalized because she chooses to teach the hardest kids to teach?”

While some take to the protest rally, others are  throwing up their chalk and emulating the Bad Teacher example of making the goal all about a high test performance to meet their district’s expectations. One of those instructors, Derrick Meador, a middle school science teacher and principal in Oklahoma, detailed his winning methods in an article, Playing the Game of High Stakes Testing.

“In the month leading up to the tests, we answer hundreds of questions just like they see on the actual test,” he shares. “I want my students to be comfortable answering the questions and I want them to see examples of every possible question they might see. My students get sick of answering questions, but they also realize why we are doing it.”

But do they really? Not according to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills which makes a clear case that the volume of information crammed into young minds to prepare for these massive tests does not promote the kind of learning standards our society needs to thrive. “If the goal were simply for every state to have standards, than the mission has been accomplished and we can move onto other priorities; if on the other hand, the goal is having standards that promote the kind of skills and content knowledge needed to succeed in the 21st Century, then we have a long way to go,” the study states.

“Gearing learning towards the test is 100-percent wrong because right now the tests are generally facts, so you have to memorize that fact, and that is not what we are saying is important for the 21st Century,” argues Conoley. “The 21st  Century skills are about creative and critical thinking, evaluating information, collaboration. Teaching to the test is teaching to the low level of cognitive functioning, just teaching to the knowledge and not to creativity, analysis, synthesis – where we really want kids to be.”

By not altering the current system pushing facts and tests, we continue to let schools kill creativity, according to vocal critics, such as Sir Kenneth Robinson, who contends we are educating children out of innovation and actually squandering their talents  at a time when creativity is just as important as literacy and should be treated with the same status.

Image:Linda Nathan; Wesley Fryer; edweek; Race to Nowhere; earth911

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.