Denisha Jones is a visiting assistant professor of early childhood education at Howard University in Washington D.C., and over the last 10 years, she has taught kindergarten, preschool, and served as a campus-based preschool director. Her research interests include service-learning, dealing with challenging behaviors, the de-professionalization of teaching, and promoting diversity in education. She is also an administrator for United Opt Out National, a non-profit organization that works to eliminate high-stakes standardized testing in public education.
In this post, a version of one that appeared in emPower Magazine on Wednesday, June, 3, Jones looks at common myths about standardized testing as well as about the growing opt-out movement, in which parents and students and teachers are refusing to take/administer high-stakes tests that they believe are being used for invalid purposes.
The introduction she wrote on her original post talks about the country’s testing obsession and about the push-back against the opt-out movement now under way by school reformers and even some civil rights organizations who have somehow equated annual standardized testing with civil rights. Jones notes that President Obama has said that he would veto any rewrite of No Child Left Behind, the current version of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that does not include annual standardized testing for accountability purposes.
Jones wrote that “most of the arguments made by those who believe in standardized testing are filled with myths about what standardized testing can and should accomplish and misconceptions about the promise of opting out.” Here she addresses these myths head-on (and you can read her entire post here):
By Denisha Jones
Here are five popular myths about standardized testing and the opt-out movement — and the facts that tell what is really happening.
Myth #1. Standardized testing is needed to address the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.
This is the main point of 12 national civil rights group who issued a press release on May 5, 2015, denouncing “anti-testing efforts.” The group joint statement says: “For the civil rights community, data provide the power to advocate for greater equality under the law. It’s the reason we’ve fought to make sure that we’re counted equally in every aspect of American life, such as in employment, the criminal justice system, and consumer lending.” They acknowledge that high-stakes standardized testing (tests used to determine graduation or grade retention) can be misused and undermine the purpose of public education, but they counter that the today’s opt-out movement prohibits the collection of important data that will reveal the education disparities by race and class and our ability to fix what we measure. Additionally the statement takes issues with opt out activists using the language of the civil rights movement to remind people that standardized tests have a long history or eugenics and racial biases.
At first read, it sounds like standardized testing was designed to close the achievement gap. This is simply not true. No test can close a gap. Testing can only show you where the gaps are. We know we have an achievement gap in this country and that after 10 years of No Child Left Behind and nearly eight years of Race to the Top, the gap has not closed. Do we need more standardized testing to show us that African-American and Latino students do not score as high as their white and Asian counterparts? We know that if you plug in student zip codes on a map, you could easily determine which areas would have high test scores and which areas would have low test scores, because testing reveals more about economic inequality than academic achievement.
So how do we respond to standardized test results that show a racial or class achievement gap? Well, under NCLB, we would label the school as failing to meet “adequate yearly progress”. We would sanction the school and possibly close it and turn it into a charter school. Is that how we close the achievement gap? The charter school experiment has been under way in the United States for over 20 years and we still have an achievement gap. Although some charter schools are able to produce amazing results (especially when they self-select good students and remove those who threaten to lower test scores) but overall charters do not outperform public schools and have not closed the achievement gap.
The problem with this myth is that it leads people to believe that testing students more can somehow make the achievement gap shrink and eventually disappear. We do need to know how students are doing in school and if there are disparities based on race and class, but we can collect this information by testing a random sample of students once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school. We do not need annual testing in grades 3 through 8 to show that academic achievement is tied to social class and race.
Myth #2. High-stakes standardized testing is needed to hold teachers and districts accountable.
This myth is often tied to the previous one and used by those who seem to think teachers and their unions are the reason why all children are not succeeding in school. The idea is that teachers are either racist, lazy, or both and if we do not have standardized tests in place to measure their effectiveness (through an evaluation method called VAM, or value-added measure), then our children will be the ones to suffer. Are there racist teachers? Yes some teachers are racist. Are there lazy teachers? Yes some teachers are lazy. Will standardized testing make teachers stop being racist or lazy? No, they will not.
Instead when teacher evaluation is tied to student test scores, you see fewer teachers willing to teach students who traditionally score low. Why should a young teacher work in a school where 95 percent of the students are on free- or reduced-priced lunch, and less than 30 percent receive a passing score on standardizes test, when their job will depend on the test scores of students?
When teachers remind the public that poverty is the fundamental culprit behind low student achievement, they are often accused of making up excuses. But how does one excuse the effects of poverty when there is an abundance of research showing poverty’s negative effects on a student’s ability to learn?
Yes, not all poor children do poorly in school. Many go on to be quite successful. This is true, and I am one of those poor children who succeeded in school despite my impoverished background. But these students are the exception not the rule. The hundreds of thousands of children born poor and who fail to graduate high school are the ones we need to remember. And for them, poverty is the elephant in the room that too few want to address. It is much easier to blame the teacher, or the parent, or even the student, than to deal with the effects of living in poverty.
One thing we cannot do is expect standardized testing to solve the poverty problem by making teachers more “accountable”.
Myth #3. Opting out does not prepare children for the real world.
This myth is directed towards the students who are choosing to opt out. In a plea to young leaders, a former high school drop out reminds students that although they are told these tests are high stakes, they are nothing compared to other tests they will need to take. And since you cannot opt out of the SAT or GRE or LSAT, then you should not opt out of your current standardized testing.
It is true that after high school there will be more standardized tests you need to take. If you want to go to college you need the SAT or ACT and if you want to go graduate school you need the GRE and other academic areas will require even more standardized tests like the LSAT. But a low score on the SAT, ACT, GRE, or LSAT does not mean that you cannot go to college, graduate school, or even law school. If you fail to pass a high-stakes standardized test, you may not graduate depending on what state you live in. Or if you are in elementary school, you might be held back a grade, or forced to give up electives and specials for additional test prep. If you get a low score on the SAT or ACT, you may not get into an Ivy League school but you can still go to college.
Another difference is that your score on the SAT, ACT, GRE, or LSAT is not tied to your teacher or public school. Your high school will not face sanctions if you do poorly on the SAT. Your college dean will not have to worry about losing his/her job if your GRE scores are too low. After high school, you may need to take standardized tests, but they are not the same as the tests you are taking today.
Currently, students are drowning in our testing-obsessed school culture. They come to college unable to think critically because all they have been taught is how to eliminate poor choices and make an educated guess. As a college professor, I can attest to the effects of testing industrial complex on the new generation of college students. Not all, but many of them have no desire or joy for learning because they spent years preparing to take narrowly drawn tests. And they have a hard time adjusting to the expectations of college life because testing is not the goal of higher education. What these students really need is an opportunity to reclaim their public education. They will be much better off learning how to fight for something they believe in than searching for the right answer out of four not-so-right choices on a standardized test.
Myth #4. Opting out is just for white middle-class families who care only about their own children.
Arne Duncan, secretary of the Department of Education, bolstered this myth when he accused white soccer moms of fighting the Common Core State Standards because the tests showed that their children were not as bright as they thought they were. Others have also pushed this myth, arguing that the opt-out movement is dominated by middle-class families who are concerned for the welfare of their own children, but seem less concerned about poor children who are languishing in low-performing schools. Even if the opt-out movement is dominated by white middle-class parents — as are many public schools — it does not mean that those pushing the opt-out movement are not concerned about poor children in public schools. Many of us in the opt-out movement are the same people who are demanding that poverty and income equality be addressed. We know that poverty and racial discrimination are real problems affecting student achievement, which is why we refuse to play along with the status quo that more standardized testing is going to make things better.
The truth is that there are many parent and teachers of color who have been a part of this movement from the beginning. And in New Jersey and New York there are schools that are predominantly high-poverty opting out in huge numbers. The opt-out movement will continue to strive for diversity in its members and work with all parents, students, and teachers who believe that our public education system should not be reduced to preparing students to pass a test.
It is also true that many white middle-class parents did not join the fight to save public education until the Common Core standards and standardized testing began to affect their child and their public school. When urban schools were being closed and turned into to charters and urban teachers were being fired and replaced by temporary Teach for America staff, many white middle-class families remained silent. And that silence allowed Common Core and standardized testing to spread into middle-class schools. Now that Common Core is in most states, and the Smarter Balanced or PARCC tests are being administered to millions of students, these families are ready to say enough is enough. It is fair to ask if these white middle-class parents continue to fight when the issues are those only affecting urban schools. But answering that question is not the goal of those who say the opt-out movement lacks diversity.
Myth #5. Opting out does nothing to stop the testing industrial complex.
No matter what side you are on, almost everyone can agree that there is too much testing. Many of those who critique the opt-out movement are quick to acknowledge that there is too much testing and test pre in schools today. Their response however, is not to opt out of testing, but to demand that the test be used appropriately and that the curriculum not be based on testing. Wow, why didn’t we think of that? Why didn’t we just decide to say look, just get rid of the test prep and we will take the tests? One reason is that the tests used today cannot broadly assess what students know and can do, so using them as an all-important metric is unfair.
No amount of wishful thinking or rational conversation is going to stop the testing industrial complex. All of the major players who have millions and even billions of dollars invested in standardized testing are not going to pack up and go home because we ask them to. Many in the opt-out movement believe that the only way to stop the testing industrial complex is to deny it the student data it needs to keep moving forward.
To save public education, we must expose the myths and lies about testing and the opt-out movement. We must remind people that a norm-referenced standardized test is designed to get results that produce a bell curve, meaning only a certain amount of children will score below average, average, or above average. We must call out the insanity that insists that we use a test that will never allow for 100 percent of children to succeed to prove that not all children are succeeding. We must reclaim our rights as students, teachers, and parents to have an equitable democratic public education system that prepares everyone for life as an informed citizen.