Testing, Testing: Does Assessment Make Better Students? | In the Classroom | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Testing, Testing: Does Assessment Make Better Students? 

CELIA KRAMPIEN
  • Celia Krampien

It used to be that back-to-school meant writing a paper on your summer vacation. This year, students in New York public schools were very shortly elbow-deep in benchmark tests, pretests, Star tests, and more. There will be more tests in the middle of the year, still more at the end. The data thus derived will play a role in your child's education on several levels, from how her teacher spends class time to how much extra federal money her district receives, to be shared by the State Education Department with testing vendors.

How did we get here? Is it a good place to be? Some believe all the emphasis on objective data is part of a larger scheme to discredit, defund, and generally destroy public education, to replace it with a privatized system. Others say it's just not the best way for teachers and students to be spending time.

How It All Began
Standardized testing began in the 19th century and ramped up in the early 20th as the military sought ways to figure out who had leadership potential, and a grading machine invented in 1936 sped things up. Soon after, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills were born, and standardized tests—the Iowas and the SATs—remained a fairly minor element of public education up until the dawn of the 21st century.

In 2002, the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandated high-stakes standardized testing nationwide as a way of finding out what children knew and which schools and teachers were doing a good job. Students were suddenly assessed more than ever before. "Data-driven curricular alignment" and other such buzzwords became a big part of school board and faculty discussions.

Racing, But Where?
In 2009, the Obama administration's Department of Education unveiled Race to the Top (RTTP), which tied federal funding directly to assessments in a big way. Out of a possible 500 points a state can be awarded on its RTTT grant application, 117 are tied directly to assessment; others relating to performance are undoubtedly being measured by its results.

RTTT also ties teacher evaluations to test scores more than ever before, through the widespread use of a "value-added" modeling system that assesses teachers based on their students' test result improvements from one year to the next in an Annual Professional Performance Review.

RTTT also calls for the implementation of a new, nationwide curriculum "designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers," according to its developers.

Testing is by definition an arduous business, and a number of teachers and parents have been protesting the enormous increase in its use since the initial rollout of NCLB. According to the website Rethinking Testing, a nine-year-old New Yorker now spends 11 hours of her school year taking standardized tests, a figure that does not factor in the curriculum hours spent directly preparing for them, "teaching to the test."

"Until NCLB changed the whole ball game, tests were just something you had on occasion. They could be useful. Testing has its place, but what we see now is not that," says Nancy Schneidewind, a professor of education at SUNY New Paltz since 1975 and author of Educational Courage: Resisting the Ambush of Public Education. "What we have is an unprecedented, federally imposed set of standards, tests, and evaluations of students and teachers, taking away local control of schools.

"Common Core is just part and parcel of the same pattern, an increase in the number and significance of high stakes tests," says Schneidewind. "There's a lot of mythology out there about Common Core. When I say critical thinking, I mean raising critical questions; theirs is a much narrower view of being able to analyze data and get the 'right' answer."

Different Learners, Same Test
Defining success by test scores seems narrow indeed to parents of special needs students, English learners, and those whose learning styles otherwise vary. "My younger son has a disability," says parent Bianca Tanis, "and when I found out he had to take the same test as everyone else, it felt like a violation of his rights and dignity. I was told it was mandated—they had no choice, they could lose their jobs. I called state ed, then I called a civil rights attorney, who told me the only way would be for me to keep him home for six test days and six makeup days. He's autistic and thrives on routine. Kids are all different. Some are English-language learners, some have neurological disabilities. They say they 'accommodate.' Double-time is not an accommodation if it's a fifth grader sitting for three hours with a test he can't read."

Common Core standards, like NCLB and RTTT, are born of the perception that public education in the United States is broken, as supposedly indicated by the USA's slippage in worldwide education standings. But when the scores considered are taken from just the richest 20 percent of US districts, the US ranking shoots up. "This is all connected to Race To The Top. Why is everything a race?" Tanis wonders. "Who cares? The real issue is poverty and discrepancy in opportunity."

For-Profit Test Taking
Last spring, New York tested students using assessments based on the not-yet-implemented Common Core curriculum. In a March 2013 field memo to administrators, the New York State Education Department said that low scores were likely and that districts should tread lightly in considering spring 2013 results as an actual measurement of anything. Parents were livid, some mailing their child's state test scores right back with a note of protest. "It becomes test mania," says a 14-year veteran seventh-grade teacher in a large Hudson Valley district, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Pretests at the beginning of the year, then the end of the year is full of tests—and these were so hard. When you have 30 percent passing and 60 percent labeled failures, and that information gets tied to your work evaluation, people get demoralized."

In the NYSED memo are numerous mentions of consulting with "vendors," whose unfettered access to student data is part of what some see as the solution, and others, the problem. New York's major vendor is the multinational Pearson Education, decidedly for-profit and with a "global education strategy designed to produce faster growth, larger addressable market opportunity and greater impact on learning outcomes," according to its website.

"Pearson's a monopoly," says Schniedewind. "They create the test, they score the test, they sell you the modules and the prep materials." Onetime Pearson-division employee David Wakelyn is currently serving as Governor Cuomo's Deputy Secretary of Education; Pearson's current five-year agreement with New York State for testing services cost the state $32 million.

Opting Out of Testing
That standardized testing is not the only path to rigorous, excellent education is proven by the example of Finland, whose public schools have consistently amazed the Finns themselves with top scores on an international student assessment, despite never having had to take any sort of standardized tests before. The emphasis in Finland is on small class sizes and the relationship between learner and teacher, fitting the education to the individual child. Teachers are carefully chosen, highly educated, and well paid. The Finns aren't racing anywhere; they're already there.

Interestingly, the other "best system in the world" by rank is South Korea's, where rote memorization and centralized curriculum and testing are the rule and teachers can make big money as tutors in a privatized market.

Private schools in the US don't do Race To The Top—for which, as a report from SUNY's Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach found, "the aggregate cost just to get ready for the first year in September 2012 was $6,472,166, while the aggregate funding was $520,415. Districts had to make up a cost differential of $5,951,751 with local taxpayer dollars."

Testing as Symptom
But despite never having taken standardized tests, a group of students at the Great Barrington Rudolph Steiner School tested in the top 10 percent nationwide on the SSAT (Secondary School Admission Test); one student tested in the top 2 percent.

"We are really fortunate that we get to know students on a different level than is often possible in large state schools, where teachers are changed more frequently," says GBRSS teacher Pamela Giles. "We've got continuity; the class/teacher/student relationship can continue for eight years in core subjects. We're constantly assessing every child through observation and written work—our students do a tremendous amount of writing. We give tests—essay tests, multiple choice tests, spelling tests, printed tests—we're not afraid of them; they're tools. We have many eyes viewing this one child, and if we see any red flags we give diagnostic tests, do oral testing. We just don't use standardized tests.

"Testing in itself is not necessarily traumatic. We just don't need those. I think our alumni worldwide prove that children thrive on expectation, not pressure, and being surrounded by people who are completely dedicated to them doing the best they possibly can. I think that's what public school teachers want to do, too—all this testing is just a fingernail clipping of a larger social issue."

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