Why we need a moratorium on the high stakes of testing

The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, called late last month for a moratorium on the high stakes attached to new Common Core-aligned standardized tests. (You can read about that here.)  Here’s a piece in support of that call, written by Jeff Bryant, an Associate Fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future and the owner of a marketing and communications consultancy. It serves numerous organizations including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, PBS, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. He writes extensively about public education policy at ourfuture.org. Follow Jeff on Twitter: jeffbcdm

By Jeff Bryant

By now it’s become clear to anyone willing to pay attention that our nation’s obsession over education standards and testing has gotten out of hand.

Ratcheting education standards ever higher at the same time we cut supports that schools and students need to reach those standards never made any sense to begin with. And the value placed on testing isn’t yielding the return promised in terms of significantly better results for children and improved evaluations of teachers and schools.

Nevertheless, new tests with even higher stakes are being rolled out across the country. The tests are purported to align to new curriculum standards called the Common Core that are strongly backed by the Obama administration and many education advocates from across the political spectrum.

But curriculum materials aligned to the new tests are generally not available for teachers, and educators complain they’ve not been trained in how to teach to the new standards.

In a moment of sanity late last month, a leading proponent of the new standards, Randi Weingarten, leader of the American Federation of Teachers, defected from the run-up to implementation and called for a moratorium on the high stakes associated with the Common Core and its new tests.

“We aren’t saying students shouldn’t be assessed,” Weingarten declared. “We aren’t saying teachers shouldn’t be evaluated. We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be standardized tests. We’re talking about a moratorium on consequences in these transitional years.”

She called for an “implementation plan” with more time and input from front-line teachers and “field testing” of the new tests to gather data on the results without punitive “high-stakes” consequences attached.

AFT’s stand quickly got the approval of The Nation’s Katrina vanden Huevel who wrote for The Washington Post, “In today’s high-stakes climate, families have come to dread the endless parade of bubble sheets that now dominate their kids’ lives. Many feel that the emphasis on standardized tests has focused instruction on how to answer multiple-choice questions instead of how to reason and think critically.”

Of course, we all remember taking tests during our school years. And education standards for public schools are nothing new – most states have had them for years.

But testing today is different. Teachers’ and principals’ jobs – indeed the entire existence of the school – can hinge on the results, creating a super-charged atmosphere for the students that stresses them and robs them of valuable instructional time.

Testing and standards have their place for sure, but current education policies have crossed a line and given standards and testing more emphasis than they deserve at the expense of other important initiatives.

Test Obsession Runs Wild

If you hadn’t noticed that America’s obsession with testing students has gotten out of hand, maybe this will get your attention.

Last week, a CBS outlet in upstate New York reported that a “4th grader, hooked to medical machines and IV’s, undergoing pre-brain surgery screening was asked to take a New York State test from his hospital bed.”

The boy has “life-threatening epilepsy” and, according to his mom, was “hooked up to an EEG . . . an IV in his hand and he’s wearing a pulse oximeter in case something happens with his oxygen levels.” Nevertheless, a teacher was dispatched by the state to administer the test.

New York State’s test obsession was perhaps an attempt to outdo Florida where, last month, a local reporter in that state noticed that the state was determined to get a test score from a 9-year-old boy who “has never attended school . . . . was born premature at four pounds with only a brain stem and can’t speak or see.”

In an update of this story, Valerie Strauss reported from her blog at The Washington Post that the boy indeed was made to complete the test, “meaning that a state employee sat down and read it to him, as if he could actually understand it.”

If these stories seem to be just extreme examples, not at all representative of what states are doing to emphasize the tests, then why does at least one state have a protocol for what to do when students vomit on the test? Astonishingly, should the student be judged capable of resuming the test, the procedure is to “give their testing materials back to them to continue testing” – and if not, “secure the testing materials in a plastic bag.”

Elementary school teacher Dan Brown reported at The Huffington Post that test-security procedures at his school caused a student to wet himself during the test. “Several students in my class, as well as others around the school, vomited on the day of the test. One boy, Dennis, could not stop shaking,” Brown wrote.

A running commentary from New York teachers who recently administered the new English Language Arts tests has been posted online, which conveys a consensus view that the exams were too long, students didn’t have enough time, students were visibly stressed during the tests, and test questions did not reflect what teachers had taught.

As students stress out about the emphasis placed on the tests, they’re also being robbed of valuable instructional time. In addition to the hours and hours of test prep teachers increasingly conduct, schools also devote more time to motivating students to do well on the tests. In Washington, D.C., “school staff stage academic pep rallies, produce rap videos and raffle off prizes,” The Washington Post reported.

The same sorts of elaborate motivational strategies to psych students up for tests have been reported in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Florida.

Now, connecting these tests to new nationwide standards has the potential to make the stakes even higher.

Does Common Core Make Things Worse?

The fact that the new tests are aligned to the Common Core has gotten many people particularly riled. As The Wall Street Journalrecently reported, “the Common Core effort is under attack” from political factions of all kinds – especially conservative Republicans.

Journal reporter Stephanie Bachero noted, “Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature . . . legislatures in Michigan, Alabama and several other states . . . and the Republican National Committee” have all sought measures to curb funding and implementation of the new standards.

The supposed advantages of the standards were summed up by a reporter in The Washington Post, who wrote, “The standards are designed to ensure that, for the first time, third-graders in Maine will acquire the same knowledge and skills as their peers in Hawaii. Once states begin testing against the new standards, it will be possible for the first time to compare test scores across communities and states.”

But the transition from “theory to reality,” the Post reporter noted, is what’s bringing out the “critics.”

At FairTest.org, the website for The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, there is an ongoing tallynews of “Testing Resistance & Reform News” related to the tests, including parents opting out their students from the tests, teachers refusing to give the tests, students walking out of school in protest of the tests, and pundits and leaders of all stripes raising objections.

The fact that some of the voices protesting Common Core and its related testing can at times sound extremist – that the standards teach “communism is good,” for instance – should not be a rationale to dismiss reasonable objections to the standards and the tests.

Education journalist Sam Chaltain observed that there is a “growing willingness to publicly acknowledge . . . that tests do not align well with the latest research into how people learn; that they prevent adults from measuring higher-level thinking in children; and, most importantly, that there are better ways to evaluate student learning and growth.”

Chaltain singled out “mini-rebellions” against testing around the country including a Montgomery County Maryland superintendent who has called teacher evaluations based on test scores “insanity,” teachers in Seattle who have boycotted the tests, and legislation in Texas to reduce testing.

Chaltain looked at “specific and realistic alternatives” to the current thinking, but these alternatives simply won’t do for those bent on “education reform.”

The Status Quo Objects

Many who were quickest to object to AFT’s moratorium resorted to conventional wisdom that has ruled education policy for nearly 20 years.

These views tend to be grounded in deep suspicion that teachers will only do the “hard work” when they are “held accountable.” What the status quo crowd wants for teachers to be “accountable” to, of course, is test scores – the very thing being over-emphasized by the current policies.

An even stranger argument is to object to the AFT moratorium based on the timeline benchmark used to implement failed NCLB policies – hardly a yardstick worth measuring up to – and the fact that a lot of time and money has already been invested in these Common Core tests, which is again, not a persuasive call for more time and money.

However, the real danger to the standards and testing regime is not that they “won’t work.” As the Shanker Institute’s Matt DiCarlo recently observed, a far more dangerous outcome is that they will.

“We most certainly should hold schools accountable for their results, and there are, at least at the moment, relatively few feasible alternatives to standardized tests,” DiCarlo wrote.

But, Di Carlo cautioned, “Educational outcomes, such as graduation and test scores, are signals of or proxies for the traits that lead to success in life, not the cause of that success.” (emphasis original)

What our current emphasis on standards and testing is doing is to “mold policy such that livelihoods depend on increasing scores” rather than molding it to what really matters: the teaching and learning of “skills – including the critical non-cognitive sort –” that are critical to success in work and in life. (again, emphasis original)

“I’m troubled,” DiCarlo concluded, “by the possibility that, if we don’t pull back the reins, this research may eventually show that we pushed the pendulum to its ultimate breaking point and structured a huge portion of our education system around measures that were only useful in the first place because we didn’t use them so much.”

That outcome would be terrible for education and the well-being of children. But it’s what’s becoming the norm in education policy today.

Time For A Pause

What should be noted is that most teachers actually see some reason to proceed with implementing of the Common Core, according to a survey of the AFT membership.

Indeed, in a recent editorial in the education trade newspaper Education Week, a classroom teacher defended the standards, saying, “The common core can be an opportunity to shift the work of learning from our own backs onto the shoulders of our students, where it belongs – and that’s the heart of progressive education.”

But at a time when our education system is being so starved of the resources it needs, should we be funneling ever more cash toward a “pig in a poke” like standards-based testing while research-proven remedies such asearly childhood education continue to go unfunded?

Even the most ardent devotees to the standards and testing regime should be convinced of the need to pause and reflect on what kind of results this “movement” has wrought, consider why no other country in the world is hurtling down this path, examine the evidence with the skepticism it deserves, and, yes, support a moratorium.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local
Next Story
Valerie Strauss · May 14, 2013