The scores for the PSSA (Pennsylvania’s state standardized test) just came out. Rumor has it they are not good, with 70% of the students scoring below basic in math. 70% failure rate??????? When I was in college learning how to be a teacher constructing a test was one thing we learned about. It should have a variety of opportunities for responses, should include multiple choice, fill in the blanks, essays, and true-false questions. We learned that if we gave a test based on what we taught that saw more than 50% failing, that there was probably something wrong with the test, that it didn’t measure what we actually taught, that we should find out what the problem with the test was, re-teach the material and retest. If 70% are failing the test, there is a disconnect between what is being taught and what is being tested. We already know there is a problem in the math curriculum, expecting students in Algebra 1 to master concepts from Algebra 2/Trigonometry. If they are testing these concepts on the test, then the failure rate is understandable. Teaching/testing concepts that require advanced math in a beginning level course is plain old stupid. Stuff like this is happening all over the United States, it’s no accident.
Since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and continuing with Race to the Top (RttT), education has been assaulted by corporate reformers bent on privatizing public schools, union busting, and setting public schools up for failure and takeover. Education budgets have continuously been decreased as prices for books, supplies and heating oil rise. Teacher pensions have been continuously under attack and many states have not contributed to the pension funds for decades. Teacher tenure, which in reality is only due process in K-12 schools has been attacked to get rid of the most experienced teachers with advanced degrees who earn more money than new teachers, balancing the budget on the backs of the school employees.
Professor Jesse Turner, an educator from Connecticut, has been walking to Washington DC and meeting with education activists along the way to highlight the dangers of standardized tests and other education “reforms.” He met with a few dozen activists in Philadelphia the other day after they accompanied him across the Ben Franklin Bridge from Camden, NJ to Philadelphia. With Independence Hall as a backdrop, he addressed the need to stop the reforms that aren’t working and to get rid of high-stakes tests for students. He called for a moratorium on the Keystone tests and the PSSAs, and for a fair-funding formula for public schools. Teachers, parents and students shared their stories about the devastating effects of these tests on students and teachers. They admonished corporate-education-supporting politicians NO JUSTICE, NO VOTES.
Teachers assess students every day, several times a day, in various ways, only some of which require an actual test. Looking at writing samples, listening to a discussion, judging a poster for accuracy and creativity, Listening to a child explain a math problem to his peer, reading and answering questions in reading groups, noticing what kind of questions a child asks can also give some indication of whether they understand a concept. Watching a group of students put together a play about an historical figure, write a song about a science concept. There are many more ways to determine if a child is progressing. The idea that only a standardized test can tell if a child is succeeding is ludicrous.
A standardized test is a way, however, to gather information quickly and compare it nationwide. The NAEP tests, given every 2 years in specific grades, do just that. Even the NAEP's results do not come back in enough time to make a difference that year for the child that took them. When I went to elementary school, we took ONE standardized test in 4th grade to determine our IQs. The rest of the year, our teachers tested us weekly in spelling and math, monthly in history and geography and civics, (we didn't have science until 6th grade). We had January and June exams. These exams were usually locally made and cumulative but didn't count for the whole grade in the report card. I believe they counted for 25% of your grade. My second standardized test was the PSAT and then the SAT. And that was it until I took my National Teachers Exams my senior year of college.
We don't NEED standardized test to tell us which kids are having a problem. In fact, we can probably sit down with the child and ascertain what the problem is quicker than they can take a standardized test. Sometimes we can't figure out how to help the child and that's where the IEP process takes over. Speaking of IEPs, do you realize that kids can't be declared Special Ed unless they are performing two full years or more below their grade level? Special Ed kids have to take these grade level tests with no accounting for where they CAN perform. The only accommodations are the teacher reading the directions and a longer testing time and a small group atmosphere. As if taking 4 or 5 hours to complete a 1.5 hour test will make a big difference. Either you can or you can't do it, whether you can't do it in an hour or in 4 hours, it's still not going to make a difference.
To hold up graduation or promotion because a child cannot perform on a standardized test is a travesty. You are willing to bet that a test taken on one day can judge a child better than a year's performance in class? I don't think so. One day of testing negates 4 years of high school tests, projects and reports? No.
As a teacher, I can see a place for standardized tests, but not the high stakes these tests come with. My last year of teaching (I retired in 2012) brought me a class of 25 fifth graders. Two were homeless, one who had a mother who was an addict. One girl's mother had just died that summer, one boy's mother had a stroke and was bedridden at home, two kids received special ed services, one boy arrived in November having never attended a regular school. He had been in a 6-students class for emotionally disturbed kids for the previous 5 years. He required constant attention and a TSS worker who never materialized. Another young man was on his 5th school in the past 2 years because he had emotional problems at all the others and was seeing a shrink twice a week. Yet another young man had anger issues and was under a psychiatrist's care. Two kids arrived mid-year from a local charter school that counseled them out because they were failing (both kids were performing 2-3 years below level). Another girl had been shuttled back and forth from relative to relative because she was manipulative and mean. She needed psychiatric help but was not receiving any. That's almost HALF my class with issues that would prevent them from learning and doing well on tests.
The rest of the class? I saw 6 at or above grade level and 7 were one year below grade level. I taught my heart out that year. Brought 2 kids three levels forward in reading, stopped one of the kids from running out of the class when frustrated, found hidden talents in several kids that caused higher self-esteem and therefore higher school performance.
How did we do on the PSSA? The on-level kids did great! A couple of the one-year-below kids were able to make proficient on either math or reading. One of the special ed kids did well in writing. The emotionally disturbed kids bombed the tests because they refused to take it once they got frustrated. The standardized tests they took didn’t begin to scratch the surface of all the students learned that year or any of the years before.
If you asked me whether that year was a success, I could give you at least one success for each child in that room. Indeed, some of the kids performed beyond my wildest dreams. I was told at some point that some kids were assigned to my room simply because I had infinite patience and was non-confrontational with the emotionally disturbed kids. Many years, I'd get the kids no one else wanted. If I were to be judged on their overall test performance, I'd be judged as an ineffective teacher. But I wasn't ineffective at all. My students left me in a much better place than they arrived, not because of any test, but because I tried to work with them in the ways they needed me to.
Truly, a standardized test cannot tell you whether a child has learned or not. It only tells you that the child is good at taking a standardized test. The writing test tells you that your child can follow a rigid template and use multi-syllable words. That template destroys any kind of creative response to a prompt and the essays all end up sounding the same. It’s disgusting what the writing test has done to creative writing.
Standardized test cut scores are set every year AFTER the test has been taken. Why? So the appropriate number of students will fail. What is that appropriate number? What ever will make a bell curve. There will always be low-scoring students because that’s the way the test is set up. If by some chance everyone who took the test did well and ranked in the proficient area, they’d take those cut scores and make it so only 25% of the kids scored proficient and 25% score below basic, even though their results would have earned everyone a proficient score the year before. They can set the cut scores anywhere they wish to make it look like kids are failing or kids are progressing well. The scores have nothing to do with what a child knows and has learned, the scores are manipulated each year.
What to do? Until the standardized tests become low-stakes tests and aren’t the determiner of promotion or graduation, the only choice is to Opt Out. Join the movement, it’s been growing exponentially for years. Older middle schoolers and high schoolers can simply refuse to take the test. Elementary schoolers can be opted out by their parents refusing the tests for their child in writing to the principal and superintendent after viewing it.