It's time to speak up about testing

Last month, after I walked the third graders from across the street to school for another day of testing, I came home to a welcomed invitation to sign a petition, modeled after a resolution supported by more than 360 Texas school boards, calling for the end of high stakes testing.

I’ve been waiting 10 years for the chance to speak up in an organized way on this issue. It finally came.

The advent of standards and accountability in the late 1990s confused me. On the one hand, I was thrilled by the explicit interest in addressing low achievement, and the value of defining what children should know so that we could take some of the randomness out of the education process. The down-side was an expectation of improved results without an additional investment in anything except the tests used to measure learning.  The theory of change, it seems, was that test results would create the incentive educators needed to work harder.

As a person who spends a lot of time in schools, I know firsthand that hard work isn’t the issue. Changing results takes a lot more than standardized tests and pressure on educators to do better.

A standardized test—one single measure—gives a very limited view of student learning. Yet the accountability systems we now have in place to move schools forward rely heavily on this very weak link. Test results are the basis for “high stakes” decisions about who receives a diploma, teacher evaluation or pay, or the continued operation of a school. 

I’m no expert on testing, but it is a refined science. And the experts know something about what is valid and what isn’t. In 2002 when I researched the debate about standards and high stakes testing, the experts were clear: Using standardized tests for high stakes decisions is simply not valid. It is dangerous.

Despite these warnings, and advice from education experts that improving teaching and learning is a complex process, policy makers charged forward. They embraced simple explanations and simple solutions using weak instruments like tests to drive change.  It was a way to look like they were in favor of education for all without investing in what might really lead to equity.  

Educators went along with the program. It was the law and it was made clear, as instruction guru Richard Elmore observed in the September 2002 edition of Harvard Magazine, “critics who suggest that there might be problems with the ways tests are used for accountability purposes are branded an apologist for a broken system.”

That shut people up.

Schools have taken the expectations seriously, and without additional resources have done their best to implement initiatives to intervene with children in the short run, and transform teaching and learning in the long run. Some have tried to game the system and got off track. But innovations that will produce different results have received short-shrift in this blame-and-shame environment. It saddens me that all too frequently it has resulted in a narrow curriculum—if it isn’t tested it isn’t taught—limited time for innovative instruction, and lost excitement about teaching and learning.

Kids are losing out.

We’ve lived with No Child Left Behind for more than 10 years now, and with state testing for even longer. Finally those who had concerns are no longer holding their tongues. Accountability has its place, but it is wrong to depend on tests to create change.

For the last dozen years, we’ve used test scores to deny diplomas, to stigmatize and label schools and teachers, to drive the best teachers from classrooms serving the neediest students, to market communities or hasten their decline. Test scores have been used to justify disinvestment in public education and giving up on poor children. Testing encourages judging schools instead of embracing their crucial role in our society and making them work.

We want all kids to love learning. I don’t see testing helping that.

Click on if you want to join the chorus calling for change. It’s about time we did.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a 30-year resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 5, Issue 6, Posted 11:26 AM, 05.30.2012