Many of you joined me last night for the District 15 Community Education Council at 7:00 at MS 51. For those who weren’t able to be there, I include here the transcript of my words:
As we reflect on the new state test results, we need to ask “Why?” Rather than guessing, I checked out the United States Department of Education’s website where I found frequently asked questions. One was, “How does testing help teachers?” We are told: “Teachers gain a great deal of information about the performance of individual students that enables them to meet the particular needs of every child.”
Never mind that results arrive in the summer when it is too late to use this data to change instruction.
I would argue that today’s test scores do not tell us very much. There are few surprises. If the test was too hard, the score will be low. Too easy, the score will be high.
This year we saw that although everyone’s scores went down, results followed the norm: schools with more poverty, special education and second language learners performed more poorly than others.
Another question at the government website was,”How is testing handled for children with disabilities and for those with limited English proficiency?” The answer? “No Child Left Behind requires that all children be assessed.” How insightful. No acknowledgement that these tests are completely inappropriate for second language learners and those with disabilities. We already know they can be two or three years behind grade level so it makes no sense to test them on material that may be two or three years above it.
Uncle Sam continues, “Some say that testing causes teachers to teach to the test. Is that true?” Embedded in the answer is the claim that, “If teachers cover subject matter required by the standards and teach it well, then students will master the material on which they will be tested. In that case, students will need no special test preparation in order to do well.”
That’s a big if. There was a time when test preparation was considered unethical. Now, preparation for the tests is standard and in fact, at my school, parents will ask if we are putting their children at a disadvantage when we don’t do test prep.
Yet another question asks, “Do tests measure the progress of schools?” We learn that testing data determines whether a school is meeting the state’s standard of “adequate yearly progress.” Today this data is being used not only to measure schools, but to rate teachers from ineffective to highly effective in part by calculating the amount of student growth on standardized tests. In fact, each child’s rate of progress could conceivably affect the careers not only of his or her teacher, but of other teachers in the school.
What gets lost in this discussion is testing’s impact on the child. I was fortunate to have raised my daughters before the era of testing. They took tests, but there was no prep and no true concern about performance. Yes, when the school year ended (and not in the summer) the score was included in the final progress report, but then it was forgotten. Never did it occur to a parent to blame the teacher.
No one considered that number to indicate eventual career and college readiness. We understood that
education takes time, that there was always a developmental span between children and that it was okay if some of them didn’t test well. We understood, too, that the score was simply another indicator. We had no desire for our schools to be like Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
Early in the age of accountability, standardized tests were much easier. One year, a fourth grade class in our school received twenty-five threes. Twenty-five
individuals had been reduced to sameness. But we didn’t learn who could persevere in reading and math or who understood more complex ideas.
To some extent then, the rationale for harder tests makes sense. Many of us are familiar with William Butler Yeats’ famous quote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”, but test makers assume that knowledge can be thrown in the pail and then retrieved. Educators know it doesn’t work like that. Children learn by connecting what they already know with new ideas. When we cannot actively make meaning, we do not learn or remember.
We understood the purpose of the new Common Core tests to dig deeper and to differentiate between our learners. Differentiate they did, but only because last year’s tests were hard to do well on because there was no connection to the children.
Javier Hernandez in the New York Times said many teachers complained of inadequate trainingto prepare students for the exams. This was not the issue.
One of our teachers, Katherine Sorel, wrote a piece for Schoolbook in which she said, “As a savvy test-taker, I could usually identify which choice Pearson considered right. And sometimes I couldn’t choose.” These kinds of tests are weak measures of the ability to comprehend complex material, write, apply math, or understand concepts. Nor do they tell us what students can do on real-world tasks.
Another significant change between the 2013 test and the tests that my children took is the length of the exams. My children spent less than one hour a day. Now, children must be tested for three days for each subject. The test is seventy to ninety minutes long and even longer for students with IEPs. One of my teachers commented, “My students tried to rise to the occasion, but found it totally grueling and some just wrote ‘something’ to finish. Heads on desk, shifting in their seats, no amount of pretzels could help them keep their otherwise sunny dispositions. And I’m exhausted: I’d much rather be teaching. Either you can read and write critically on your grade level or you can’t – three days is unnecessary and cruel.”
After viewing the process, a paraprofessional declared, “State sanctioned child abuse.” A teacher told me, ”I had at least one child in tears every day.” But the government website says only, “Although testing may be stressful for some students, testing is a normal and expected way of assessing what students have learned.”
One other concern that needs to be raised is the price of testing. Since 2008, we have seen reduced budgets with less money for basic supplies and substitute teachers. But not for testing and teacher effectiveness systems. Where is all this money coming from? Would we be more effective if we had more money for the classroom and less for “accountability”?
These tests hurt our struggling students. They have created a culture of competition amongst children, parents, teachers, and principals. The numbers become more important than the satisfaction of learning big ideas. We have given the message that we value more how children bubble in ovals than how they question or wonder about the world.
All for now,