Have standardized tests really helped kids learn more?

An award-winning principal looks at the growing resistance to standardized testing in NEw York and beyond. This was written by Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in New York. She was named 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York. She is one of the co-authors of the principals’ letter against evaluating teachers by student test scores, which has been signed by 1,535 New York principals.

By Carol Burris

How have New York parents greeted the new Common Core-aligned tests that were just given to their children? With skepticism, doubt, and in some cases, outright resistance.

This year, ‘opt out’ parent groups popped up across the Empire State. Long Island Opt Out did not exist a month ago; now its Facebook group has nearly 9,000 members, among them many who told their children to say “thanks but no thanks” to the recent Common Core exams. During the first days of testing, 135 students at the Icabod Crane Elementary and Middle School opted out—by the end of  testing, the number exceeded 200.  Twenty percent of Grade 3-8 students in the Rockville Centre School District did not take the exams, while a school board member in Rochester announced that her child would not be tested.  Local school boards are passing resolutions of concern regarding high stakes testing, and the Niagara Regional PTA submitted an anti-testing resolution to the New York State PTA.

Oddly, however, there appears to be little interest by the press in investigating why this growing rebellion is occurring.  Instead, New York editorial boards from the conservative New York Post to the liberal New York Times echo the argument that tougher testing is a public good.

Equally unfazed by the rebellion, State Education Department officials justified this year’s difficult exams by saying that without the tests, parents would not know where their children are on the road to college readiness.  The tests must be harder, they argue, because only 35% of all New York State graduates are ready for college.  Their claim is based on a correlation between scores on two Regents exams  (one of which is no longer given), and the probability of New York City graduates earning a grade of ‘C ‘in a CUNY college. It is a spurious definition of readiness.  Curiously, the validity of this measure has been unchallenged by the press. Commissioner King boldly extended that claim to eighth graders when he said, “It’s the fault of all of the adults that we have a system that leaves 65 percent of students who start ninth grade unprepared.”  He presented no evidence for this sweeping indictment of elementary and middle school educators, and, by including “all adults”, parents.

Certainly, college remediation rates are unacceptably high. They are also complicated measures that include adults who enter college years after high school graduation, as well as students who elect, but are not required, to take remedial courses. Not surprisingly, the remediation rates are the highest in community colleges that allow anyone who applies (and can pay) to enroll. While improved reading skills would lower the need for remedial classes in college, there is no evidence that giving elementary students more difficult tests will make them better readers.  Giving students access to excellent literacy-rich pre-school experiences and intensive, research-based reading programs in the first years of schooling, on the other hand, will.

Although every mom wants her child to be well prepared for college and career, parents are skeptical that test-based reforms will accomplish that goal.  Elementary and middle school principals report that their parents are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the additional time spent on the measurement of learning, rather than on learning itself.  Test prep is crowding out instruction, even as time spent on testing balloons.

Ten years ago, New York students in Grades 4, 5 (social studies only) and 8 were tested.  It was not until 2006 that state testing was added in Grades 3, 6 and 7. Three years ago, Grade 3 testing time was 160 minutes.  This year, Grade 3 testing time was 410 minutes.  These numbers do not include all of the additional testing for SLOs and other achievement tests that teachers must give due to APPR, the new mandated teacher evaluation system. Yet remarkably, Commissioner King recently told the Albany Times Union editorial board that students spend the same amount of time taking tests this year as they have for the last decade, a statement which is clearly not accurate.  That statement also remains unchallenged by the press.

Parental concerns go beyond the instructional time wasted by excessive testing.  Parents worry that when young children get their scores on these “toughen up” tests that their dreams will narrow.  They worry that their children will not have access to advanced programs based on flawed tests. I worry that some parents may begin to believe that their sons or daughters should never dream big, based on cut scores designed to make proficiency rates drop like a stone. I also worry that all of the teenagers we teach, support and cajole through Grade 9 will believe their academic fate is set from score reports they receive before they even walk through the high school door.

Yet despite the lack of evidence for new standards and the unknown consequences of basing educational policy and programs on Common Core testing, the media is far too eager to buy the rhetoric that tougher tests will make students smarter. There is no appetite in the press to dig deep into the validity of claims made by testing proponents, even when they clearly present conjecture as fact.  They treat parental concerns as an oddity—forgetting that parents, not the marketplace, have the greatest vested interest in the education that their children receive.

Although editorial boards would like to think that they shape the public’s thinking, parents sense that the interests of their children are being swept aside in a frantic rush to prepare workers for global economic contests. Their gut instinct is telling them that the politicians and pundits are more worried about economic growth than what testing is doing to their children’s education. That is why increasing numbers of parents are speaking up and “opting out”.

And the press should start to pay attention, because it is a story well worth following.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 29, 2013