It’s National Education Week and it’s time to talk about testing. High-stakes-testing that is. These are not the old end-of-unit quizzes you and I took in school. We’re talking about an entirely new system of labeling and punishing schools that is having dire consequences for students. Hand in glove with other corporate-style “reform” measures and draconian state budget cuts such as we’ve seen here in Pennsylvania, high-stakes-testing lies at the heart of the modern attack on public education.
So where did this come from? The high-stakes-testing and accountability movement solidified under federal law in 2001 when President George Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This legislation radically transformed public education policy by dramatically increasing the role of the federal government and mandating standardized testing to measure student achievement. It also created a culture of failure and blame, accusing teachers of poor performance when their students did not do well on the tests, and then labeling schools as failures when their students struggled. This effectively reinforced an existing national narrative of “failing public schools.” And while there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary, that narrative conveniently fits with what many people already believe about cities, urban schools, and minority students, lending the narrative even more power.
NCLB effectively created the system of “teaching to the test” and “canned curricula” giving teachers less and less control over their classrooms, while students spend more and more time preparing for tests and practicing test-taking skills. Students are certainly learning how to take standardized tests, but not actual content: when they are tested on the same material in a different format, they cannot demonstrate any real subject mastery. Even those students in districts that have shown impressive gains over the past few years under NCLB cannot transfer those skills, failing to perform on different tests of similar content. [Daniel Koretz, Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, 2008].
The massive increase in school time spent on test preparation inevitably detracts from time on other learning tasks. Yinzercator Pamela Harbin points out that this year Pittsburgh Public School sixth graders – including my own son – will take 23 of these tests, nine more than last year. Teachers are increasingly being evaluated on their students’ test scores and little else, even though these tests were never designed for this purpose. And schools that fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the federal law are threatened with punitive sanctions, including loss of funding, and in the worst-case scenario, complete closure.
High-stakes-testing has therefore set the stage for a plague of cheating scandals as desperate students, teachers, school districts, and even states try to game the system. (See how this has made Pennsylvania’s own Secretary of Education “A Liar and a Cheat.”) NCLB set the unrealistic target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students in reading and math by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed. In a nationwide study of high-stakes-testing, Arizona State University researchers concluded, “The scores we get from high-stakes tests cannot be trusted—they are corrupted and distorted. Moreover, such tests cannot adequately measure the important things we really want to measure. Even worse … [h]igh- stakes testing programs corrupt and distort the people in the educational system.” [“The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High Stakes Testing, 2005”]
What’s more, high-stakes-testing has drastically narrowed school curricula with its laser focus on reading and math. These are essential skills, but our children have lost music, art, foreign languages, history, science, and much more in the quest for higher standardized test scores in these two areas. And when Governor Corbett cut nearly $1BILLION from our schools, many districts were forced to eliminate programs, keeping only those classes that would be measured on standardized tests. When we lament as a community empty library shelves and rally behind our very own Manchester Miracle, we must stop to consider how high-stakes-testing has created a climate in which libraries are expendable. [If you haven’t already, be sure to read why cutting libraries is so short-sighted in “Libraries (and Librarians) Matter.”]
And now we have new tests. Under new federal Common Core Standards, states are phasing in new standardized tests – here in Pennsylvania they will be called Keystone Exams – which will be significantly more difficult. Last year, Kentucky became the first state to use the new Common Core in its testing and “the percentage of students scoring proficient dropped by a third or more in elementary and middle school compared with the old test.” [Post-Gazette, 11-8-12] In an on-line comment to that story, the National Association of Secondary School Principals applauded the Pittsburgh Public School district for trying to “prepare their stakeholders” for what will in all likelihood be a “precipitous drop” in test scores. “Otherwise,” they noted, “a different narrative will be created for them, and the scores will just become one more bludgeon for public-school detractors.”
This is exactly the point. These high-stakes-tests are being used to hurt schools, not help them. Schools with low-scoring students do not get extra resources or offers of help. They get labeled as failures and threatened with sanctions. And despite all the additional tests, our children are not learning more – they are learning less. They are losing their libraries, arts education, tutoring, and so much more.
Enough is enough. Since it’s National Education Week, let’s spend some time this week educating ourselves about the real consequences of high-stakes-testing. Stay tuned and we’ll talk some more about a growing national movement resisting this cancerous plague in our public schools.