Mandated multiple-choice tests on reading, math and science are determining the fate of our public schools, students and teachers. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which since 2002 has required schools to test grades 2-12 and states to penalize schools for low test scores, expired in 2007—however, its authority is automatically extended until a new bill is passed, and Congress has yet to renew or rewrite the law. Thirty-three states have been granted NCLB waivers, and five more currently being reviewed, for a bit of relief from the high-stake tests and penalties such as losing federal funding. Some of the waivers depend upon teacher and principal evaluations and schools devising their own system of accountability.
These new systems will also factor in test scores to some extent, but will include focus on qualitative measures as well such as attendance, writing assessments, and literacy-building activities to judge a school’s success. Test scores, opponents of NCLB argue, go up and down from year to year.
One major problem with mandating sanctions against the schools for their scores involves the issue of the lack of consistency between the class curriculum, standards, available materials for instruction, and the state administered tests and standards of proficiency. A study conducted in 2005 and 2007 by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) found that only 11 states for grades 3-12 had both strong content standards and tests that aligned with the standards in reading and math."Many of the large-scale assessments [state tests] are too far removed from curriculum and instruction,” said Howard Everson, president for Academic Initiatives at the College Board. “They don't provide enough information back to the classroom. And the state agencies are not quite sure how to deal with the problem.” Steven Weinberg, now a retired teacher from Oakland, California, also finds the tests lacking. “The trouble with teaching to the test is that the standardized tests are not by their nature able to measure meaningful learning and emphasize the trivial rather than the essential,” he says.
Answering to the concerns and objections to standardized testing, the American Federation of Teachers wrote a petition against "teaching to the test" in schools. In July, more than 10,000 educators, parents and students signed the petition which is titled “Testing Should Inform, Not Impede, Teaching and Learning” and which stated that “testing has undermined our students’ educational opportunities.” Signers were urged to take a stand. The AFT's campaign against standardized tests kicked off at a teacher's union convention in Detroit last month.
“In short,” AFT wrote in their resolution, “the inappropriate and punitive use of assessments, which too often are low quality to begin with, has eclipsed teaching in too many schools. It is time to restore a proper balance education, and to ensure that assessments—as important as they are—inform and not impede teaching and learning.”
"Parents and teachers agree it's time to put teaching ahead of testing so we can provide all children the rich, meaningful public education they deserve," AFT President Randi Weingarten said. "The balance is way off -- and as a result, test-driven education policies continue to force educators to sacrifice the time they need to help students learn to critically analyze content and, instead, focus on teaching to the test.”
"I'm proud my 7th-graders read over 1,200 books this past school year," one signer, teacher Don Carlisto of Saranac Lake, N.Y., told the AFT. "But we are sacrificing time that could be spent on learning and promoting reading to focus on tests that too often are unreliable indicators of student performance, of poor quality, and full of errors."
Tests, proponents argue, are a part of life. Teachers for standardized tests advocate that learning test-taking skills in K-12 is important and should be incorporated in class curriculum, and that this should not deter or affect that curriculum or a child’s learning. Jeanie Fritzsche, current district-level curriculum coordinator and former teacher in Irvine, California schools says that good test preparation focuses on making sure students are meeting state standards, not on test-prep activities. "My personal experience has been that in spite of the stress surrounding the state-mandated testing, without the test many teachers would be less conscientious about addressing grade-level standards,” Fritzche said.
Another proponent, Matthew Matera, a middle school teacher at a charter school in Boston, says that teaching how to do well on tests is “a part of the instructional program, not a separate thing.”
“Standardized tests ask students to demonstrate reading passage comprehension, to derive the meaning of words from context, to pull out facts where needed and to draw connections,” Matera explains. “These are all skills of a good reader and they are required in professional life, too.”
However, with so many of our public schools in trouble because of cut funding and the NCLB law, are these measures helping or hurting? And do the tests deter passion for learning and teaching? High-stake tests cause excess stress and can even lead to issues such as cheating, Jonathan Raymond, chief accountability officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina, addresses: “When you raise the stakes, you run the risk of having these issues [cheating]. When you narrow your focus you also run the risk of lowering excitement around learning, of not capturing the imagination and passions of children in learning and wanting to achieve.”
Julia Steiny, a writer who is involved in many projects including consulting for schools and government initiatives and founding the Youth Restoration Project initiative herself, recently contributed an article to Education News about having fun in the classroom being of equal importance to working, especially in K-12 schools. She suggests that testing for whether or not the kids are having fun (as an additional part of measuring school success) would improve achievement in our schools.
“If we measure the one [work], we owe it to the kids to measure the other [pleasure],” Steiny contends. “Then as schools compete for high scores on the pleasure scale, I bet we’ll see test scores rise as well.”
Is our focus on standardized testing destroying teachers' passion for teaching and students' passion for learning? Whether or not this notion is fair, NCLB is fading away with state waivers and efforts against "teaching to the test" such as AFT's petition are gaining strength and voices. The best path for American education? To keep going. And although there is plenty to criticize, I would like to end on a positive note by introducing things director of the Center for Public Education Patte Barth says are good or improving for our K-12 schools, published in the American School Board Journal this July:
•Beginning Reading – Reading scores for our elementary students have significantly improved over the past decade. American fourth-grader readers rank among students from the top-scoring nations.
•Racial gaps are closing – The achievement gap is narrowing between children of color and white children. In high school, the course-taking gap between black and white students has disappeared.
•Civics – U.S. elementary students were the top internationally in civics in 1999 and have continued to do well in this subject.
•English Language Learners (ELL) – ELL students’ performance is as good as or better than English language learners in other industrial nations. This is not because of English-only submersion, which has proven to have the least effect; however, the U.S. does have an advantage because we have more trained ESL teachers.
•Access to High-quality preschool programs – States have been expanding access to and increasing the quality of pre-kindergarten programs over the last decade. The number of four-year-olds enrolled has now doubled to 27 percent and 12 more percent are enrolled in Head Start.
•High-level high school courses – In 1990, only 31 percent of high school seniors had a core curriculum that included math up to Algebra II and three lab science courses; by 2009, that number went up to 59 percent.
•High school graduation rates – Graduation rates for high-schoolers are beginning to improve. Since 2002, rates have increased by 8-11 percent.
•Mathematics – We may not be number one internationally, but Barth says that we have made great progress over the years. Scores for middle schoolers, scores for elementary students, and SAT math scores have all significantly improved.
•Community support – Nine out of 10 school-aged children attend public schools in America and that number has been relatively stable for the past 40 years. Barth notes as well that although good opinion of the American public education system is generally declining, Americans still tend to feel good about and be supportive of local schools.
Janel Spencer is a writer and content editor for 360 Education Solutions