Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: Perspectives on and the future of standardized testing

This is the second of a two-part series on standardized testing.

Last week, I discussed the history and issues involved in standardized testing. In today’s column, I will present the two sides of the issue and the future of high-stakes testing.

The No Child Left Behind act requires every student in grades 3 through 8 to undergo annual standardized testing, in additional to numerous “benchmark” tests throughout the year. Test outcomes impact school funding and autonomy, as well as teacher evaluations and student progress. There are several perspectives on this.

THE PROPONENTS

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools and founder/chief executive of StudentsFirst, agrees that standardized achievement tests are not fun, but necessary. She likens these tests to stepping on the bathroom scale to see the effectiveness of a diet and exercise regimen, or to routine dental visits to check for cavities — they are both somewhat unpleasant, but provide information to keep us healthy. For education, she says standardized tests provide an objective measurement of academic progress, identify strengths and weaknesses, and help professionals reach competency in their careers.

Bill Gates, a major influence in education policy, believes that learning is a product of teaching. He feels that experience and advanced degrees have little bearing on what makes a great teacher. After spending millions of dollars trying to figure out what does make a teacher great, he believes the great ones raise standardized test scores — and he feels test scores are infallible indicators of quality.

THE OPPONENTS

Veteran educator Marion Brady says “standardized tests measure a quantity — the amount of information taught, minus the amount not learned or learned and forgotten. The subtracted data provides a number used to sort and labeling things from students, teachers, schools, school systems, states, and ultimately nations.” Due to the complexity of educating individuals, she feels that disregarding the role of class size, school size, teacher education/experience in test performance is misguided.

While educators struggled toward a more tangible concept that learning is a product of the activities of learners, policy makers and their financial supporters seized the helm and instead of collaborating, created standards and tests which only slowed the process of moving past an antiquated view of teaching.

Anya Kamenetz, in her book The Test says “pervasive assessment is a nightmare version of school for most students. It’s like burning thirsty plants in a garden under a magnifying glass, in the hope they will grow faster under scrutiny.”

The focus of high-stakes testing on scores reduces the opportunities for inquiry and other real world learning experiences in favor of hammering in irrelevant test prep information. As test scores become the omnipotent factor in what determines an effective educator, a successful student, or the quality of a school, awe-inspired learning moments begin to pale in comparison to the urgency of bubbling in a correct answer.

Students produce better work when tasks are meaningful; when academic work spills into the real world. But standardized tests do not evaluate this, and what is evaluated comes back too late to make any purposeful change.

THE ISSUES

▪ Measurement of applicable knowledge. Standardized tests, by virtue of being multiple-choice, don’t allow for students to express themselves. Many critics advocate for assessments that are open-ended. This is especially critical when applied to the arts. The ability to draw, paint or play an instrument cannot be truly measured on a bubble test.

▪ “Teaching to the test.” Does preparing for a high stakes test at the center of a year’s curriculum impact the dynamism and creativity inherent in effective and enjoyable instruction? Focused on outcomes, less value tends to be placed on enriching and real world applications for that which will be tested and evaluated.

▪ Standardized testing vs instruction time. High school students in Texas spend between 29 and 45 days/year taking tests. Tennessee students spend six weeksa year, and four in California, according to PolicyMic.com. This doesn’t include the time spent on test preparation classes and benchmark practice exams.

Just last week, when the first FSA (writing) rolled out, South Florida’s largest counties postponed the exams as technical problems immediately surfaced on the computer based test. Hundreds of thousands of students were either unable to access the system or unable to complete it once it started.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said “until all the glitches are worked out, Miami Dade won’t give the exams,” The decision was made to prevent further frustration as well as to protect instructional time.

Carvhalho added that the recent bungled roll-out compromised the fairness and validity of the test since many students were able to see questions before getting booted off.

▪ High stakes lead to cheating and score manipulation. A large cheating scandal was discovered in Atlanta in 2013 causing all the scores to be invalidated. Schools may also be tempted to push low-performing students into special education, where scores don’t impact cumulative outcomes.

▪ Tests include cultural bias. Standardized tests ask students to draw on knowledge that they are unlikely to obtain in school. TIME writer Noliwe Rooks feels that when socioeconomics, culture and race advantage some and disadvantage others, it is difficult to justify tests and testing methods.

▪ Timing and data utilization. Annual outcomes don’t benefit student progress because results typically return after the school year is over when any instructional usefulness has expired. There is no time for adjustments or remediation.

THE FUTURE

What does the future hold?

▪ Stop and rethink. For many kids it’s too late to undo the damage. But the winds of change are coming. In the recent TIME article Leaving Tests Behind, Haley Edwards illustrates the seismic shift in public opinion about standardized testing in school. The article also illustrates the power of people. This year, a Virginia law went into effect eliminating many mandatory standardized tests. In place of those tests, the State has asked teachers to perform “alternative assessments” — that is, performance based projects that monitor student progress.

Aftershocks can be felt in Arizona where the superintendent asked the governor to opt out of a set of tests. Other states like Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina have voted to peel back the number of state mandated exams or reduce their impact. Cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, Long Island, Newark are also making noise.

In Florida, following an investigation into standardized testing, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart's recommendation that the English and reading test given to high school juniors be eliminated was upheld by Gov. Rick Scott.

▪ Opt out? In certain states, parents are being convinced to have their children simply opt out of standardized testing. Students still need to be measured for progress compared to their peers — in different regions and between different cultures and race. I believe this mindset parallels the similar issue we face with opting out of vaccinations. Opting out of anything doesn’t solve the problem.

▪ Make better and different assessment tools. Today’s conversations should continue working to find reasonable assessment tools that ensure the progress of every student and to create evaluation strategies to ensure the effectiveness of the teacher.

Most importantly, teachers should not be measured by student’s test outcomes. Qualified teacher observations, documentation of student work, and performance-based assessments remain better indicators of effective teaching. Leading academic nations, like Finland, use these same techniques.

From physicians to FedEx workers, professionals all undergo routine performance assessments. As educators we need to find assessment methods that objectively measure what we bring to the classroom and how we optimize learning gains for our students. As professionals, we need to embrace the concept of being objectively evaluated to ensure that we and the systems that we work for remain effective.

So the question remains, where do we go from here and how do we get there?

It is going to be an interesting journey. As Derek Landy said: “Every solution to every problem is simple. It’s the distance between the two where the mystery lies.”

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.

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