Legislator, educator challenging ‘testing juggernaut’

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A New York state legislator and educator wrote this piece to express their concerns about the effects of high-stakes testing on schools and to urge a rethinking of the school accountability system. This was written by Arnold Dodge, associate professor and chair of the  Department of Educational Leadership and Administration at Long Island University-Post, and Charles Lavine, a member of the New York State Assembly.

 

By Arnold Dodge and Charles Lavine

The New York State Senate education committee has been traveling the state to conduct hearings entitled: “The Regents Reform Agenda: ‘Assessing’ Our Progress.”   In light of this important and timely inquiry we feel compelled to share our concerns about the state of so-called educational reform in New York.

New York State parents recently received test score results from last year’s standardized testing administration.  These new tests were based on the Common Core State Standards and education officials warned they would be harder than the tests students had become accustomed to taking. Predictably, the test score results were abysmal, and policy makers throughout the state are on the defensive, putting the best face on what many consider a debacle.  Our alliance as an educator and a legislator developed during a lengthy and frank conversation about this most recent round of testing and the standardized testing juggernaut that has sucked the oxygen out of classrooms across the country.

We agreed that we are in a state of emergency in our schools.   The current testing regimes, which impact every facet of school life, are crippling our students’ ability to learn, grow and develop.  A recent national poll by PDK/Gallup found the public less than enthusiastic about significant increases in testing, with 41% of respondents saying that additional testing made no difference in school performance and 36% responding that it had hurt school performance.  Given the massive investment in tax dollars to contract with private corporations to develop and install standardized tests in most states in the country, elected officials on both sides of the aisle should be questioning a costly initiative that does not have public support and has come under attack by knowledgeable educators at every level.

During our conversation we reaffirmed that both educators and legislators have a profound commitment to service the children of our state, not only because it is a moral imperative, but because the future of our country depends on sound schools.     We decided to act immediately by expressing our concerns to a wider audience, outlining some of the disastrous protocols and their consequences that exist today in our schools as a result of a high stakes testing policy.

The federal Race to the Top program, which resembles its progenitor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), for its unforgiving stance on high-stakes testing,  holds out the promise of millions of dollars for states that comply with accountability measures based on student achievement.  As such, New York State, with $700 million hanging in the balance, uses English Language Arts and math scores from standardized tests as the centerpiece of accountability measures – along with a cobbled together formula of other variables. A report issued by the Center for Education Policy found that, in 2007, five years after NCLB became law, 62% of a representative sample of school districts across the country increased the amount of time spent on elementary language arts and math (a 47% increase in language arts and a 37% increase in math).  These same districts decreased time allowed for science, social studies, art and music, physical education and recess.

In 2013, under Race to the Top strictures, which are accompanied by threats of closure, censure, and defunding to any schools which fail to do well on standardized tests, most schools have made English Language Arts and math testing preparation and administration the top priority of the school year, marginalizing all other endeavors.   By focusing intensively on two subjects, narrowing of the curriculum has followed.  Children are not getting the art, music, social studies, foreign language, and more that make up a robust school experience.  Even science and technology, two subjects that are universally  touted as critical to future college and career readiness, are short-changed in this new era.  Recess time for the youngest children has been reduced (and eliminated in some cases) and test prep time has become sacrosanct.

And then there is the validity and reliability of the tests themselves.   As Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard socio-biologist, pointed out over 30 years ago in The Mismeasure of Man, the mysterious and ineffable quality of intelligence is made more accessible through assigning a number to it. He suggests, however, that numbering and ranking intelligence is a dubious enterprise at best.  Today, as we oversimplify the measurements of achievement in our schools, we get results that may be quantifiable, but they are also quite often meaningless.

Learning is so much richer – and more complicated – than any single number can reliably represent.  The vagaries of social/emotional development, home circumstances, English language proficiency, the fact that some students are simply not good test takers, and a host of other variables impact on performance on any given day in the school life of a child.   If the current testing regime does not change, we are doomed to be chasing numbers and ranking students based on extremely limited and over-simplified definitions of intelligence and potential.

The United States educational establishment is hounded by critics who warn that we are not competitive worldwide, i.e., we are losing the education wars.  They use our ranking as leverage to demand even more testing, somehow believing that we can test our way to the top.  But when one looks more deeply into the comparisons, a more complex picture emerges.  Two examples are illustrative.

In an ironic twist, China, arguably our most serious threat for worldwide economic supremacy, has recognized for years that it has a problem with too much testing and competition in their schools.  A 2011 Pew Research survey found that 11 % of Chinese parents say there is not enough pressure on students and 68% say there is too much.  In the same survey, 64% of U.S. parents felt that parents were not putting enough pressure on students and 11 % felt that there was too much pressure.

Chinese educators are visiting American classrooms for answers.   They are not seeking the best ways to test children; they come to visit because they admire our hands-on classroom approaches (approaches that will vanish if standardized test taking dictates our curriculum choices).  They know that what they call their “examination culture” does not service their children well.  They have come to believe that those who are good at test taking are not necessarily good at innovation.  While American students are still having hands-on experiences, Chinese students are obsessing over homework and examination grades. How much longer before we are sending educators to visit China, drowning in meaningless test score data, bemoaning our once proud interactive classrooms?

And who has not heard the lament that we are doing poorly when compared to Finland?  Well, in fact, Finlanddoes not administer standardized tests until the last year of high school.  Teachers, provided with a short set of guidelines, develop the curriculum and protocols for learning.  And, 45% of high school students attend vocational school.  Finland has one-fifth the poverty rate that we do and just over five million people, relatively homogeneous in background.  This is clearly a case of comparing apples to reindeer.

How about our students’ frame of mind when they take the new tests?  Not only is it common sense that stress reduces concentration, but an iconic statistical curve (known as the Yerkes-Dodson curve) demonstrates that after a certain point, attention (i.e., arousal) turns to anxiety, which reduces the learner’s ability to understand and complete a task competently.  Are we taking this relationship into account with our high stakes initiatives?   Reports have come in from around the state and country of students crying and anxious and overwhelmed from the pressure of testing. There are actually vomit protocols used in many states that describe what to do should a child vomit on his test paper.  In one case, a state issued plastic gloves to the teachers to make sure the soiled tests were still collected.  Parents, incensed at the toll that has been taken on their children each year during test time, are opting out of the tests.

Something is terribly wrong in our schools.  Not because we don’t have talent or determination or the imagination to improve them.  It is because we are hamstrung by policy – fueled by corporations which are making record profits from developing and managing testing – that undermines the very goals it has set out to achieve.

Our commitment is to use our respective bully pulpits to confront a misbegotten education policy.  Our goal is to press for dismantling of an apparatus in our public education system that damages the fragile and vulnerable intellectual development of youngsters in our schools – and squanders taxpayer dollars in the process.   We need a rich curriculum, assessment and measurements that are formative and diagnostic for teacher use, an honest look at our current strengths in the worldwide education stage, and an understanding that stressed out kids will not be successful learners.

Responsible adults need to put aside their politics and their hubris and find the humility to say that we have been wrong about the imposition of high-stakes testing in our schools.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · October 24, 2013