Education, one of America's most important domestic issues. | Photo: Archives
Recently, I sat in a café with my friend Liz, who has worked in a number of schools in western New York, and I took the opportunity to steer the conversation to the topic of standardized testing. I had gotten the impression long before that her attitude towards it was fairly unforgiving, but I don't believe that we had ever taken the time to discuss it in earnest. Over our coffee, I tried my best to challenge my friend on her perspective. After all, considered in its most basic terms, standardized testing seems like a fine idea. Surely there needs to be some means of assessing the quality of education on a national scale. But the more one hears from teachers about the implementation and effects of standardized testing, the more difficult it becomes to defend it.
I have several friends and acquaintances who are New York State teachers, but I've also written articles on education from an outside perspective and done extensive editing and consulting for clients in the fields of educational policy and consulting. Consequently, I have had access to multiple points of view on the state of education in America. And all my work and conversation on the subject has repeatedly brought me back to one conclusion in particular: that there is an abysmal gulf between the knowledge, perspective, function, and priorities of, on the one hand, policymakers and scholars of education, and on the other hand, teachers who are actively engaged with classroom instruction.
It is probably on account of that divide that there is a growing trend of stories about widespread opposition to the persistence of standardized testing. And the testing situation certainly is persistent. While the system in its basic form began in 1965 with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, government spending on standardized testing grew by 160% after the implementation of No Child Left Behind during the George W. Bush administration. Now the current administration is heralding Race to the Top as a solution for the errors and excesses of No Child Left Behind, but it does not seem to view questioning the value of extensive standardized testing as part of that solution. In fact, some critics see Race to the Top as redoubling the nation's obsession with testing and its addiction to data.
New York is one of the nineteen states that have received Race to the Top funds, necessitating that it implement a new teacher evaluation system. This led to a contentious period for Governor Cuomo, education officials and the teachers' union, which was resolved only under threat that the governor would unilaterally impose his standards if a compromise was not reached. The result has left critics of standardized testing as frustrated as ever. Under the new rule, tests ostensibly comprise forty percent of teachers' annual reviews. However, officials were also careful to point out that if a teacher is judged to be ineffective based on test scores, he or she must be judged as ineffective overall. So in reality, a teacher will be subject to other criteria if her students' test scores are good, but if her kids don't test well, that is the sole determining factor for whether she keeps her job or is able to continue teaching according to her professional judgment.
This is exactly what Liz and I discussed even without reference to the new state assessments. Coming at the subject of standardized testing from the standpoint of just a rudimentary conception of their function, I argued that it's perfectly sensible to use test-based assessments because there needs to be a way of gauging the effectiveness of teachers and the state of the education system as a whole. I was able to get Liz to concede that there is a legitimate role for them, but her emphasis remained on the idea that they shouldn't be the primary criterion, much less the sole criterion for judging a teacher's competence. She was not exactly eager to acknowledge any role at all for standardized testing, though, presumably because the way that it has been applied has consistently given the impression that there is no such thing as a modest role for it. If it is relied on at all, it dominates the system.
Liz's experiences don't seem to be at all unusual among teachers either in New York State or across the country. It's because of the observed dominance of testing over the entire structure of education that we hear such frequent repetition of the dire phrase "teaching to the test." FairTest.org, in its assessment of the damaging effects of standardized testing, says not just that teaching is coming to reflect the expectations of testing more and more, but that "teaching more and more resembles testing," because in addition to the curriculum morphing to match the test, methods of teaching also come to reflect the multiple-choice format.
Fair Test also repeats and strengthens my friend's criticism of the prevalence of testing, saying that no test is good enough to be the sole or primary basis for significant decisions regarding a student's status or academic trajectory. Whatever intuitive appeal there is for standardized assessments, anyone ought to recognize this criticism of exclusive criteria as carrying a lot more weight. It's never appropriate to make tremendously impactful decisions based on a severely narrow range of information. And this is all the more true when there is a lack of clarity as to the value of that information, as seems to be the case with standardized tests.
On one hand, 93 percent of studies find that student testing, including standardized tests, has a positive effect on student achievement. On the other hand, that claim is not necessarily borne out by empirical observations. In the years following the expansion of standardized testing under No Child Left Behind, the comparative performance of American students in mathematics has fallen from 18th in the world to 31st, with similar declines in science and no improvement in reading. The apparent contradiction between different types of analysis speaks to a crucial but seemingly ignored fact about such broad-based assessments.
If standardized tests have value to the education system, that value consists in statistical analysis. If the testing system is generally reliable, it provides a snapshot of the overall proficiency of broad geographic regions. But every large-scale study is subject to a margin of error. Standardized tests do not represent the specific conditions and mitigating circumstances of different classrooms, much less do they provide a detailed profile of the understanding and capabilities of any individual student. To pretend that they can do so is to try to use a telescope in place of a microscope.
"It's one piece of data," says Holly Rottier, director of assessment and improvement for Oshkosh, Wisconsin area schools. "If we look at [standardized test results] as the sole indicator, then we have problems because...a student might not perform well on that day and then you make a judgment of them that's not necessarily true."
It also bears noting that the lackluster statistics on the performance of heavily tested students only take into account those content areas that can be tested via a largely multiple choice format. Less concrete but arguably more important educational outcomes, such as critical thinking skills, intellectual curiosity and creativity are necessarily ignored by testing. Such characteristics are naturally harder to assess, but that is no justification for treating them as if they are unimportant. Or do policymakers who promote over-reliance on standardized tests really believe that the intellectual development of the human mind can be encapsulated by a series of bubbles on a Scantron form?
It's troubling enough to think that excessive emphasis on high-stakes testing can derail individual students by rushing to judgment based on a single test, but worse still is the possibility that two such assessments might derail the career of a teacher who is willing to challenge herself wi
|Teachers in New York State desperately want to teach and to teach well.|
th difficult groups of students and who is improving their outcomes in ways that can't necessarily be reflected by short-term test scores. When every student is held to the same standard regardless of such circumstances as prior performance, socio-economic background, family characteristics or even special education status, teachers that will be judged on the basis of their outcomes have no incentive to apply their teaching skills to the lives of the most at-risk students. Instead, for the sake of job security, their priority must be to see that their next class is comprised of students who test better than those from their last class.
This, too, is something that my friend Liz carefully pointed out to me. The fundamental lack of value in standardized testing, as she sees it, is that instructors like her are judged not according to the quality of their teaching, but the quality of their students. The more I understand about the current situation, the more this begins to look like a presumption of teacher incompetence on the part of state and federal policymakers. My acquaintanceship with Liz and others like her has thoroughly impressed upon me the knowledge that teachers in New York State desperately want to teach and to teach well, but they feel embattled by the simplistic, knee-jerk assessments that necessitate that they teach to the test and, wherever possible, teach only those students who already know what they need to know.
That perception is presumably shared throughout the states. In an investigation of the reasons behind widespread cheating on standardized tests, the Georgia Governor's Bureau of Investigation concluded, "Since the enactment of NCLB, standardized testing has become more about measuring the teachers, principals and schools than accurately assessing the children's academic progress."
In this climate, classroom innovation is thoroughly stifled. To hear the Secretary of Education talk about it, Race to the Top has been intended to reverse exactly that climate and promote innovation where No Child Left Behind failed to do so. But judging by the feedback of many teachers and school administrators, the only real effect has been to shift the responsibility for onerous impositions upon public education from federal policymakers to state policymakers. But on neither level do these people know what is happening in actual classrooms.
Thus it seems like nothing could be more sensible than Monmouth University School of Education lecturer Dorothy Varygiannes' advocacy for changing the system so that state testing policymakers "get back in the trenches." Failing that, there remains a toxic divide between the realms of policy and actual teaching. In a particularly egregious example of that disconnect, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently declared the goal of getting all students in the state to test at grade level. Since "grade level" in Wisconsin is determined by the median of all test results, half of students will always be below grade level, rendering Walker's goal impossible. Either the governor has no idea how assessments work in his state or he doesn't understand basic math. In either case he probably shouldn't have a controlling interest in educational policy.
It's little wonder that we have begun to see such local-level resistance to standardized testing that some of it has been described in such vivid terms as "open rebellion," as with Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott describing the present application of standardized testing as a "perversion" of the system that lawmakers originally had in mind.
Clearly, Scott is not up in arms over the very existence of standardized testing programs, only the damaging, high-stakes way in which they are used. The intuition that guided my commentary when I was having coffee with Liz remains: There's little doubt that standardized testing serves a crucial role. The problem with the current, persistent system is the way test results have been utilized, which has somehow turned a yard stick into a hammer.
Here in New York State, that hammer continues to threaten teachers indiscriminately in the wake of the so-called agreement on a new evaluation system. Thus, James Eterno, former opposition candidate for the United Federation of Teachers, is advocating further open rebellion:
The only way to stop any of this from going into effect is for us to raise our collective voices loudly and say that we're not going to voluntarily walk into the guillotine. If today's agreement becomes our actual teacher evaluation system, then there will more than likely be massive teacher firings beginning in 2014.
Given the sorry state of our education system, I would actually be perfectly fine with massive teacher firings, but only if there was some assurance that those firings would be of legitimately bad teachers. As it is, we have no such assurances. Indeed, the very poorly managed standardized testing system of the past decade makes it terribly likely that excellent instructors who refuse to teach to the test and who challenge the students who have the poorest educational opportunities will either be actively forced from their profession or stripped of any incentives for continuing to give their hearts and souls to a system the scrutinizes their performance without actually looking at it.