By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Dinuba Teachers Association member Annie Davidian-Moos. Photo by Scott Buschman
Depending upon your point of view, standardized tests are an accurate measure of student achievement; a somewhat accurate indication of student achievement; or are just one of many factors to be considered in assessing what students have learned in the classroom.
“Standardized tests, if they are used properly, indicate whether a child is succeeding in school,” says John Halcon, a professor of education at CSU San Marcos, specializing in bilingual/multicultural education, racism in education, and the educating of at-risk students. “But if they don’t speak English and they’re given a STAR test in English, what have I shown you except that they don’t speak English?” (STAR tests are administered each spring to measure academic achievement of all students in grades 2-11, including English learners, in California public schools.)
Even standardized tests in math given to English learners mostly reveal that a student does not speak English well, says Halcon, a member of the California Faculty Association and co-author of The Best for Our Children: Critical Perspectives on Literacy for Latino Students. “When you get to the word problems, they are in En-glish. So testing for word problems is only a test to see if they speak English well enough to solve it.”
Tests not proof of comprehension
Christina Rodriguez, a seventh-grade math and pre-algebra teacher at Giano Intermediate in Rowland, finds test results helpful when teachers have to place students in the math class appropriate for their level of understanding. Her school has a software program that allows her to look at the scores of students from previous years to see if they are ready for algebra. Teachers also look at which standards their students struggled with the previous year so they can focus on them in current classes.
Test scores are helpful, says Rodriguez, but they are not proof of comprehension. Some students are just good test takers, and they are taught how to choose the right answer through the process of elimination, she explains.
“Let’s say they have a question about a slope of a line,” says Rodriguez. “The line is going down, so I can teach them that it means negative. They know how to eliminate the choices that are positive. They can eliminate answers and maybe take a 50-50 chance between two answers. But that doesn’t mean they know how to find the slope of a line.”
Divide between rich and poor
Standardized tests are an excellent measure of how rich or poor the student population is, says Alfie Kohn, who has authored several books about standardized testing.
“We know that 80 to 90 percent of average test scores for a school or district can be explained, statistically speaking, without knowing anything about what happened inside the classrooms. They’re driven by socioeconomic factors,” says Kahn. He believes scores may also indicate how much time has been spent preparing kids to do well on specific tests through constant test prep and drilling, rather than encouraging them to become independent thinkers and enthusiastic learners.
By “flagging” differences in student performance by race and class, high-stakes testing reveals the “long-standing inequalities” in many schools and neglect of poor and minority students, comments Linda Darling-Hammond in an article, “Evaluating No Child Left Behind,” published in The Nation. NCLB, she adds, has shifted the focus to “testing rather than investing” in our public schools.
Hammond, author of 13 books and countless journal articles on education policy, is a professor of education at Stanford and co-directs the university’s School Redesign Network. She notes that inner-city and poor, rural schools most in need of support instead pay a “diversity penalty” for serving a wide range of students and stand to lose funds under NCLB instead of getting the help they need.
“Standardized tests can only show us what a student knows if the conditions are right,” says Curtis Washington, a math teacher and a CTA Board member. “When conditions are right, the kid had a good breakfast and a good attitude and the stars are aligned.”
Washington served on the state’s High School Exit Exam Committee and its High School Restructuring Committee. As a math teacher at a high-performing high school, he has seen cases where students bubble in the answers without reading the questions or “make pretty faces with the bubbles” because they don’t care about the results, since scores are not reflected on their report card grades. When that happens, they do not accurately reflect what students know.
In the San Mateo Union High School District where he has taught for many years, Curtis has seen overemphasis on testing and labeling schools as so-called “failures” have a devastating impact. One school with lower test scores was given a bad rap by some parents in the community, resulting in lower enrollment and lesser funding as students enrolled in other schools or transferred out.
“Because of testing, kids in some schools are left behind,” says Washington. “Competition reduces diversity and the overall excellence of a school. The school in my district with lower scores has the reputation of being a little rougher, but it’s still a good school. And because of test scores, that school has been stigmatized within my district and now has less to offer students in the way of programs and opportunities.”
Lack of a well-rounded experience
Tests scores do not show the myriad of strengths that each child brings to the classroom and to society, says Joe Lucido, a fifth-grade teacher at Liddell Elementary School in Fresno and a member of the Central Unified Teachers Association.
Lucido co-founded Educators and Parents Against Testing Abuse with his father, Rog Lucido, a retired teacher, because they believe students are becoming turned off to school due to constant testing and pre-testing. It is not uncommon for students to take upward of 6 to 10 tests a year outside of their regular test to prepare them for the “real” test, says Lucido.
“There’s never been a study proving more testing equals more learning,” he says. “It doesn’t.”
“Standardized testing doesn’t show the growth my children make,” says Babette Jaire, a longtime special education teacher for students with mild to moderate disabilities at Alpha Elementary School in Madera. “It doesn’t offer a true snapshot of a student’s growth that year. And it makes them feel like failures. It makes the school environment very stressful for children, teachers and administrators.”
It takes time for new programs and curriculum to take effect, so scores may not show instantly whether something is working or not. Nonetheless, says Jaire, president of the Madera Unified Teachers Association, schools become “frantic” to find instant solutions and are constantly switching tactics without sound reasoning.
“Schools feel that they have to find something else right away. Everyone is at a frantic pace to find the next best thing. They say, ‘We tried that and it didn’t work after a year, so throw it out.’ There is a feeling of insecurity, and children lack a foundation to build upon previous knowledge. Data takes time; and we have to take time to reflect on what it means.”
Annie Davidian-Moos, a teacher at Dinuba High School, believes that testing also reveals what kinds of things students have been exposed to. For example, questions may refer to Cinderella, glass slippers and a clock striking midnight. Some of her students, especially English learners, have never heard of Cinderella.
She became an English teacher to share her love of literature with students. But only her honors class reads novels. Other students read excerpts of novels or anthologies in their textbooks.
“For me, teaching is basically test prep,” says the Dinuba Teachers Association member. “And test prep means rote memorization on multiple choice tests. I feel like I’m a proctor more than a teacher. I worry that my students are missing out on learning to love literature.”
Not prepared for college
FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, recently reported that too much testing leaves students unprepared for college. Five-year trend data released in August by FairTest shows that ACT (American College Testing) scores have remained flat — and that little progress has been made in college readiness or in reducing the achievement gap — despite students experiencing a test-driven approach to so-called school reform since they were in fifth grade.
“Based on ACT scores, they are not better prepared for college and the workforce, and over the same period, the racial achievement gap has not narrowed,” notes the study. “The ACT trend data confirm recent results from the federal government’s own National Assessment of Educational Progress: NCLB is not effective.”
Overemphasis on testing leaves students unprepared for the real world, she says. “I worry that I’m setting them up for failure in college because they don’t have time to write very much anymore. Putting full paragraphs together is a chore. It’s all about the test.”
As for the California High School Exit Exam, researchers with PACE recently reported that CAHSEE had reduced the graduation rate for girls and minorities, and that the students subject to the CAHSEE requirement learned no more between 10th and 11th grade than similar students in the previous cohort who were not subject to the exam requirement.
But testing isn’t likely to be reduced any time soon.
“The pressure from business roundtables to privatize education has never been higher,” says Lucido. “The rope around the neck of schools being judged by their test performance has tightened almost irreversibly. Many testing companies have lobbied our Legislature to increase the assessment in schools. It seems to me that the current trend is to ‘test for the test’ so that one can do well on the test. It’s a big quagmire of nonsense that has no basis in research, only corporate ideology.”
To really measure what students know, Darling-Hammond advocates using performance or “formative” assessments that measure critical-thinking skills in addition to current assessments.
CTA also supports student assessment systems that use multiple measures instead of a one-day snapshot based solely on test scores, says CTA President David A. Sanchez. “We support an assessment system that measures and encourages a focus on writing, research, scientific investigation, problem solving, and a host of other critically important skills.”
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