The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The folks at the top Still Don’t Get it

on April 27, 2016

I first decided to post an article from this past Sunday’s New York Times, written by Kate Taylor, beause I suspected that many of my readers don’t get the Times.  But what came to me as I read through the article a second time was something more important: the policy makers and experts making the decisions about the importance of testing, do not understand what those tests mean to students or what their scores really signify about today’s educational practices.  At the end of the article I will give my thoughts on the current situation.

WHEN the parents of more than 200,000 pupils in the third through eighth grades in New York chose to have their children sit out standardized tests last spring, major civil rights organizations were quick to condemn their decision, along with similar movements in Colorado, Washington and New Jersey.

Reliable testing results, they argued, broken down by race, income and disability status, were critical in holding schools accountable for providing equal education for all. By refusing to have their children participate, the parents were “inadvertently making a choice to undermine efforts to improve schools for every child,” according to a statement by the groups.

Because the families opting out were disproportionately white and middle class, testing proponents dismissed them as coddled suburbanites, while insisting that urban parents, who had graver concerns about the quality of their children’s schools, were supportive of the tests. Earlier this year, proponents of testing began using the hashtag #OptOutSoWhite — a spin on the #OscarsSoWhite social-media campaign — to suggest that testing opposition was a form of white privilege.

Yet, as testing season unfolds this year, the debate is becoming murkier. More minority educators, parents and students are criticizing the tests, opening a rift with civil rights groups and black and Hispanic educators who support testing, like Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.

Their complaints are wide-ranging. They argue that the focus on testing has forced struggling schools to cut back on enriching programs like field trips and arts education. Some view testing as part of a larger agenda, driven by test companies and opponents of teachers’ unions, that seeks to wring profits from education while closing public schools and replacing them with non-unionized charter schools. Others say that the tests are damaging to students’ self-esteem, because students interpret low scores as proof that they are inferior and destined to fail.

Some even suspect that part of the tests’ purpose is to identify future dropouts and criminals. There is a persistent myth that some states use reading scores to predict the number of prison beds they will need in the future. Although there is no evidence to support it, the rumor continues to be repeated, perhaps because it reflects a suspicion in some communities that the policy makers promoting the tests and the companies writing them don’t want to raise poor students up but instead keep them in their place.

While there is little evidence thus far of a major groundswell of nonwhite, urban students opting out of testing, the battle lines are clearly shifting.

On April 15, a group of racially mixed high school students in Baltimore walked out of school and rallied outside the district’s headquarters to protest their state exam, known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The students expressed frustration over the underfunding of their schools and the lack of culturally relevant courses and said they did not want to take the tests until those problems were addressed.

A group of black parents in Philadelphia who planned to have their children opt out of the Pennsylvania state tests were featured recently on an education podcast called “Have You Heard.” They objected to the amount of money being made by the test-making companies and suggested that schools focused on testing were not cultivating students to be leaders.

“What we end up doing,” one mother said, “is creating a bunch of soldiers that, in order to pass, in order to get out of whatever their situation is, they will follow directions. And we will have a community of people that merely follow directions.”

Many educators and parents say the tests have forced schools with low scores to focus all their attention on basic reading and math skills, to the detriment of subjects like science and social studies, let alone art. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools were rated based on their test scores and those that did not improve could eventually be closed. (The reauthorized law passed last year gives states more leeway in rating schools and handling those that do not meet targets.)

Some also say the tests have led to excessive use of discipline.

“There are schools where you don’t get a class trip until after the test,” said José Luis Vilson, a middle schoolteacher in New York City and the author of “This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education.”

“There are places where students just feel like it’s a jail,” he added. “Testing often exacerbates that, to the point that it doesn’t feel like you’re going to school to learn — you’re just going to take a test.”

In a rap video produced by the Baltimore Algebra Project, the youth advocacy group that organized the student protest this month, one singer lamented: “They really using this test to tell what I’m-a be/They probably want me in jail or probably in the streets.”

Pro-testing educators say they are listening closely to the calls by black and Hispanic parents and students for a richer educational experience, although some point out that the era before standardized testing was hardly better.

In a speech this month, Mr. King acknowledged that in many schools “the balance has shifted too much away from subjects outside of math and English — the subjects that can spark students’ passion and excitement about learning.”

As a counterexample, he pointed to Kaya Henderson, the chancellor of Washington’s public schools, who has made it a requirement that all second graders learn how to ride a bicycle.

Ms. Henderson, in an interview, said she believed that, in the transition to the Common Core learning standards, states and districts had not been “as aggressive as they need to be in terms of changing their curriculum and professionally developing teachers and principals to really understand how to teach differently.”

Her own district, she said, spent four years developing a curriculum in which students hone their reading and math skills while studying a wide variety of subjects, including science and social studies.

She added that it was the responsibility of state and district leaders to emphasize the importance of field trips and extracurricular activities and to tell principals that “holding kids back from those kinds of things doesn’t help them on the test.”

“I’ve had to at some points remind my principals that kids should have a well-rounded experience all throughout the year, and it’s not O.K. to say no field trips until after the test,” she added.

But she also said that doing away with the tests would be most damaging to black and Latino students and those with disabilities. “Before No Child Left Behind, there were lots of schools where parents thought their kids were going to great schools, but after you disaggregated the results, you figured out that black kids and Latino kids or special-ed kids were actually worse off” than similar students in less high-performing schools, she said. “We need to know that kind of information. I don’t ever want to go back to a time when we don’t know.”

Sonja Brookins Santelises, vice president of K-12 policy and practice at the Education Trust, an organization that advocates for high academic achievement for poor and minority students, said she had watched the video produced by the Baltimore Algebra Project and been shaken by the students’ disappointment in their education and feelings of marginalization.

She said it was educators’ responsibility to speak to students about testing in a positive way. Ms. Brookins Santelises recalled an experience from when she was a middle schoolteacher, when she showed a student named Tabitha her test scores and explained to her that she was significantly below grade level in reading.

“She said to me, ‘Oh, my God, nobody told me I couldn’t read,’ ” Ms. Brookins Santelises recalled. “I watched how she started to internalize it, and I immediately said, ‘Wait a minute, hold up, this test is not Tabitha. But what this says is we’ve got some real work to do, and I am here to help you.’ ”

If students are being made to feel inferior, she said, it is because educators — from teachers to district officials — aren’t taking responsibility for their own failures and instead are sending low-income students the message that their poor performance is their fault.

She also urged minority students and parents to use the testing data to call out schools and districts that are not serving them well.

But some experts say that, because testing provides an incomplete picture of the problems at low-performing schools, it can lead to policies that worsen those problems rather than ameliorate them. Warren Simmons, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, said test scores can’t offer policy makers much guidance in the absence of qualitative assessments — of the curriculum, of teacher training, of the support a school is receiving from the district and state.

“Student testing is like using a thermometer to try to diagnose what kind of cancer an individual has,” Mr. Simmons said.

He said he believed that was why there was growing testing fatigue in low-income communities. Test scores can reveal that something is wrong at a school, but not what is wrong or how it can be fixed.

“I think what people are understanding is we don’t need another round of tests to tell us that schools are struggling,” he said.

The views expressed in the last four paragraphs of the article come close to what I believe about high stakes testing. Although I have not interviewed any students recently, I have talked to parents and teachers.  What they see in many students are anger and distrust about testing. Only a very few students really care about getting  high scores. For most kids, a low score doesn’t affect their lives to any great extent: “So what if I didn’t get to go on a school field trip?”; “I don’t plan to go to college anyway”; “My teachers think  I’m stupid because I got a low test score the last time.  I’ll show them just how stupid I can be this time”.

Are schools and teachers responsible for such negative attitudes?  To a certain extent, yes.  But to a greater extent the testing mania and how it has deformed education is to blame. In the name of “school accountability” the policy makers have created a monster that does not tell them what they want to know, only how angry and disheartened most students are about the current shape of public education. But even now, after many years of declining test scores, they still don’t get the message!




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