Sunday, March 13, 2016

Opting out of the High Stakes Tests Game

A number of you have asked why I am so adamantly opposed to testing.  The answer is that I am not opposed to testing.  As a public school teacher and adjunct professor I gave plenty of tests to my students.  Tests, to determine knowledge attainment, assess intellectual ability and diagnose student learning needs, are part of the educational landscape.   My opposition however, is to high stakes; one-size fits all standardized tests that purportedly evaluate student learning but are also used as a comparative instrument of “accountability”, the bureaucratic euphemism that bases individual student and school achievement as well as school district achievement on a common exam. 

Over the last decade the NY State Education Department instituted an annual testing ritual, to comply with the Federal government’s No Child Left Behind legislation.  Hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3-8 take these standardized tests in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math.   The results contribute to a system that labels students, their schools and their school districts according to the final scores obtained.  The labels have changed over the years, but at the lower end of the scale, whether the term is “failing”, “in need of improvement”, “priority”, “struggling” or “persistently struggling” the stigma of failure and incompetence is difficult to overcome.   The high stakes nature of these tests is compounded by the use of student scores as a percentage of the matrix that determines teacher and principal evaluations.

In 2012, the State adopted the Common Core State Standards and created new high stakes tests aligned with the CCSS.  The new tests seemed to be designed to fail students.  In fact, the State Education Department predicted in 2013 that there would be a high failure rate on the new Common Core ELA and Math tests because of changes in the curriculum and the tests.  The outcome has been disastrous.  Results are reported on a 4 point scale, with a score of 3 or 4 considered to be proficient.  In 2013, the percentage of students deemed to be proficient, statewide was ELA  31.1% and Math 31.1%.  In spite of reassurances from SED officials, scores for subsequent years showed little improvement.  The 2014 ELA  scores declined to 30.6% while Math scores showed a slight increase, 36.2%.  2015 results remained dismal with ELA at 31.3% and Math at 38.1%. 

If these results are not enough to raise concerns about the validity of these tests and their usefulness in providing an accurate measure of a child’s ability in reading and math, several other issues have been identified as problematic.  The tests are not diagnostic and even if they were the results are returned too late  to be used to individualize instruction.  Children’s developmental needs are not considered in this testing scenario.  ALL children in a grade level, including special needs children and children who have limited English language ability, are given the same tests.  The failure to address this diversity has contributed to test results that adversely impact children and schools especially in urban districts with greater populations of English Language Learners, students with disabilities and children living in poverty.

The legitimacy of Common Core aligned tests, in particular, has been questioned.  Parents and teachers were alarmed when they examined sample test questions and found that the reading level, in many instances, was two to three years above grade level.   It also appears that the tests are deliberately designed to confuse students by offering alternative answers that are plausible while the “correct” answer is obfuscated.   Errors have been discovered in the tests and some adults who have taken them have stories to tell about their own struggles to discern correct responses.  Parents and educators have cited numerous problems with the inordinate amount of time spent on test prep, which limits students’ exposure to the arts, physical education and even subjects such as history and science.  Parents also complained about the test anxiety that some students experience related to the stress of taking hours-long timed tests over a six-day period.   

State Education leaders were slow to listen or respond to the concerns, complaints and observations of parents and educators until they organized a massive statewide test refusal campaign.  Last year the Opt-Out movement resulted in the refusal of nearly a quarter million students (1/5 of New York’s student population) to take the ELA and Math standardized tests.  Even Governor Cuomo heard the concerns and appointed the Common Core Task Force to examine the standards implementation and the standardized tests and curriculum aligned with them.  In December that committee issued a report that recommended 21 changes, half related to standardized tests.   The final recommendation proposed “Until the new system is fully phased in, the results from assessments aligned to the current Common Core Standards, as well as the updated standards, shall only be advisory and not be used to evaluate the performance of individual teachers or students.”  The Task Force’s recommendations were accepted by the Regents. This moratorium is supposed to be in place effectively until 2019.

Given these developments, one would think that we could expect relief from the insanity of high stakes testing.  But, that is not the case.  This year, the ELA/Math testing continues with minor changes. Commissioner Elia is shortening the tests by eliminating a few questions.  However, the tests will remain the same as those constructed over the last three years.  An accommodation is being made to give students as much time as they need to complete the test, which may actually add more stress for some students.  The bottom line is that little has changed.  Our children are still be subjected to needless and meaningless testing.

For these reasons, the Opt Out Movement continues.  On March 12th, you’re invited and urged to attend a forum to learn more about how this movement is geared to protect our children from  needless and questionable testing.  Buffalo State College – 12:30pm; Buffalo State College - Classroom Building C-122.  It’s not too late to Refuse the Test!

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