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? 

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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.

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