Sunday, November 22, 2015

It's Time to Refuse the Test

We have a problem.  And have had this problem for some time.  Politicians, Businessmen, news reporters and some educational leaders would have us believe that using standardized testing to hold children and schools accountable is fair, equitable, good educational pedagogy and sound psychometric practice.

We’ve allowed our children to be victimized by high-stakes testing that labels them as “failures”, “struggling”, or “persistently struggling” (the latest in a long list of discriminatory terms).  I’ve written a number of columns about the standardized English Language Arts and Math tests that the State uses to determine “accountability” for students, schools and school districts.  But the significance of these tests bears repeating as the focus of the new Receivership law is to impose receivership, aka the take-over of schools identified as “persistently struggling” or “struggling”.   The legitimacy of instituting this system is tied to the standardized tests, which are aligned with the dubious Common Core Learning Standards.

There are numerous reasons why we should question the validity of using these tests as a principal measure of our children’s capability and a determinant of the future of our schools.  The tests 1) are not developmentally appropriate – reading levels are far above the grade level being tested 2) are not diagnostic; they don’t provide information that helps the teacher target individual student learning needs 3) are not differentiated by student need as almost all children take the same test, regardless of their cognitive ability or their English language proficiency; it’s a one size fits all approach  4) encourage teaching to the test at the expense of time for other subjects  5) demoralize and frustrate children.  In addition test results are being used to grade schools and to evaluate educators, even though statistics experts dispute the validity of this methodology.

In 2015 thousands of New York State parents were alarmed by these problems and refused to have their children take the tests. Their movement has ignited a resistance that sent a message, loud and clear about the harm that these tests are doing, especially to children.  In fact over 220,000 students opted out of taking the tests this past Spring.  Most of those parents were in suburban and rural schools, which are not targeted for State takeover.  Yet, these parents are and should be concerned that the enormous precedent of the Receivership law will have a deleterious impact on all public schools throughout the State.  However, New York State parents are not alone in opposing the subjection of students to senseless testing.

This is a national movement, which is increasingly supported by professional educators; teachers, principals, superintendents, other educational professionals and Boards of Education.  The Vermont State Board of Education recently issued a statement to caution parents about the over-reliance on a standardized test in judging student achievement.  In a November 4th memo, which was sent to all parents in the State, the Board said:

“You have received, or will receive in the near future, a report of your child’s standardized “Smarter Balanced” test results from the Vermont Comprehensive Assessment Program. This report is provided in the national assessment consortium’s format. We are working on a friendlier and more appropriate presentation for next year.

Tests are useful if used within the limits of their design, but they cannot provide you with a comprehensive picture by themselves. The State Board and Agency of Education support using a broad range of tools, measures and methods to help you and educators understand and improve your child’s learning.
We call your attention to the box labeled “scale score and overall performance.” These levels give too simplistic and too negative a message to students and parents. The tests are at a very high level. In fact, no nation has ever achieved at such a level. Do not let the results wrongly discourage your child from pursuing his or her talents, ambitions, hopes or dreams.

These tests are based on a narrow definition of “college and career ready.” In truth, there are many different careers and colleges, and there are just as many different definitions of essential skills. In fact, many (if not most) successful adults fail to score well on standardized tests. If your child’s scores show that they are not yet proficient, this does not mean that they are not doing well or will not do well in the future. 

We also recommend that you not place a great deal of emphasis on the “claims” or sub-scores. There are just not enough test items to give you reliable information.
Essentially, these test scores best serve to show the progress that our schools are making, and to help teachers adapt their curriculum to fit the needs of their students.
As a parent, encourage your child to reach as high as he or she can. Let her or him know that they are worthy and capable. Keep track of how well your child is doing over time and use that information to help your child grow as a learner. Meet with your child’s teachers so that they understand your child and so you can work as a team.
We must give every student a thorough and comprehensive education, and provide the nurturing and support each child needs to grow into an effective, productive, and self-directed citizen. In turn, these young people must be the strong parents for the generations of Vermonters yet to come.”
Kudos, Vermont State Board of Education for providing this enlightened statement about the place of standardized testing in children’s education.   As my colleague, Dr. Harris-Tigg observed, a standardized test is not a measure of real life.  We should ask the pertinent questions about the value of the current ELA and Math tests and how or if they are valid measures for all the children who are required to take them. Until those answers address how the tests benefit children, we should refuse the tests.

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