Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Opinion Writer

High stakes, no prep: These tests are designed to fail

Let’s face it – nobody likes taking tests. Exams, by nature, elicit a certain amount of anxiety. Tension. Maybe even fear.

But New York’s high-stakes standardized tests, given to all public school students, have rattled way more than a few nerves. Enough students have actually thrown up on their tests that schools are reportedly circulating procedures on how to handle vomit-covered tests.

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.

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One Long Island superintendent told the Wall Street Journal that some kids did, indeed, get sick on their tests. One student went to the bathroom and wouldn’t come out. Many dissolved into tears. Others simply refused to take the test.

It’s no wonder that parents, educators and even students are spearheading a small but growing revolution to opt out of standardized tests. From Seattle to Pennsylvania, more and more students across the country are boycotting tests that many say are increasing stress, narrowing curriculum and, at worst, leading to the kind of cheating exposed in the recent Atlanta Public Schools scandal.

The opt-out movement is a symptom of a broader problem. At their best, assessments should track whether students have learned the material they’ve been taught — and give students the chance to show off what they know. Test results should provide a clear view of where students are struggling so that teachers can help them improve.

But 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 in an open-ended world.

Moreover, it seems that the school accountability movement has put the cart before the horse. In the past couple of years, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and English Language Arts. The standards focus on the knowledge, critical thinking and deeper reasoning skills that students need to thrive in today’s economy and to become lifelong learners.

But in New York, for example, officials have already rolled out tougher tests tied to these new standards. They did this even though teachers haven’t yet been trained in how to teach the standards, nor have they all been given the curriculum and supports to do so.

What’s happening in New York is playing out across the country. The Los Angeles Times recently quoted a teacher who tweeted that within a few years, “we start testing on standards we’re not teaching with curriculum we don’t have on computers that don’t exist.”

Accountability is, of course, important. But how can students be tested on material they haven’t learned?

Even Bill Gates, whose foundation has given millions of dollars to school districts to implement evaluation systems that use student test scores to reward and punish teachers, has evolved in his thinking. As he recently wrote, putting such a disproportionate emphasis on test scores doesn’t make sense for teachers or students. “If we aren’t careful to build a system that provides feedback and that teachers trust,” Gates wrote, “this opportunity to dramatically improve the U.S. education system will be wasted.” Gates is engaging with a former adversary, the American Federation of Teachers, to promote a less test-driven approach to teacher evaluation.

The opportunity is one we cannot afford to waste. Too many students — most of them poor and minority — are being denied an education that will prepare them to succeed in life. This is an unconscionable moral failure. But the well-intentioned efforts to address the problem consistently miss the mark when it comes to implementation.

In no other field is this acceptable. We would never tell a physician to simply try out a new medical technique or technology without any training. Telling teachers to “just do it” is not a strategy. We should instead invest in helping them succeed. That means working with them to develop the curriculum they need to teach the standards and providing them with ongoing support, professional development and feedback so that they can continually improve.

It also means acknowledging that the common core standards are one way to level the playing field for low-income students — but they’re not a silver bullet. We must address the socioeconomic barriers and systemic poverty that leave so many young people behind.

In short, to lead with testing is an abomination. That’s why American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is calling today for a moratorium on the high-stakes part of high-stakes testing. In other words, she argues, we should first focus on properly implementing the common core standards before holding students and teachers hostage to them.

The high-stakes regime has come at a high price. It’s time to pay attention to the parents who are standing up for their kids by walking out of testing centers. And it’s time to invest our efforts and resources into what really matters – teachers teaching and students learning.

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