High-Stakes-Testing in National and Local Spotlight

Are they or aren’t they? As the U.S. Senate debates re-authorization of the No Child Left Behind act, they have waffled on eliminating the federal mandate for annual high-stakes-testing. Just two weeks ago, Education Week gave opponents of required testing some hope when they reported:

Although members of the Senate education committee agreed at a hearing Tuesday that teacher evaluations are essential for a thriving public education system, it’s unlikely that the forthcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act will include specific requirements. Republicans, including Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Washington shouldn’t mandate such policies, while Democrats, including ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., were wary of increasing the role student test scores play in evaluations and how those evaluations are used to compensate teachers. [Education Week, 1-27-15]

But yesterday, Politico reported, “Now that Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray are working together on a No Child Left Behind bill, it’s all but certain that any deal will keep the federal annual testing mandate.” This despite massive push-back by parents across the country who point to the dramatic expansion of testing and test culture, the elimination of non-tested subjects, the loss of learning time, and a host of negative impacts on kids, teachers, and schools. Just this weekend, Save Our Schools New Jersey mobilized over 1,000 people to email their representatives about rolling back the federal testing requirement, saying it’s time to “stop using test scores to punish students, teachers and public schools.” [Politico, 2-9-15]

With support for high-stakes-testing going all the way to the top of both political parties, the White House, and the Department of Education, parents and others concerned about the over-use and mis-use of testing face a continued state by state organizing strategy. Fortunately, they are increasingly aided by brave teachers, principals, and superintendents speaking out about the hazards of high-stakes-testing. Did you catch the fantastic op-ed last week by Superintendent Thomas Ralston of the Avonworth School District, right here outside Pittsburgh? (See below for complete transcript.) That piece went viral from the Post-Gazette web site, where it had 2.3k “likes” on Facebook, and counting!

Want to learn more about high-stakes-testing? This Friday, our colleagues at the League of Women Voters are hosting a meeting devoted to the update of the organization’s State Education Policy Position. They will discuss high-stakes-testing and develop a consensus to be submitted to the membership at their PA State Convention in June. The public is welcome to attend and contribute to the discussion (however only League members will be able to vote on the consensus). The Central Pittsburgh Unit will meet at the Squirrel Hill Library, Friday, February 13th at 1 pm.

Now I leave you with these wise words from Superintendent Ralston:

Make Our Kids Future-Ready; Enough with the Standardized Testing [Post-Gazette, 1-1-15]

Back in November, I was one of several school superintendents from Western Pennsylvania fortunate enough to be invited to Washington, D.C., along with colleagues from across the United States to participate in the Future Ready Pledge.

The day included meetings with President Barack Obama and with officials from the U.S. Department of Education, including secretary Arne Duncan. Time for collaboration was also built into the day as the superintendents shared success stories, some from districts in truly desperate situations, and brainstormed about how to meet challenges with creative, innovative solutions.

The pinnacle of the day was taking the Future Ready Pledge, led by Mr. Obama, as we dedicated ourselves to employ digital learning tools to prepare students for success in college, career and citizenship. The experience was invigorating and energizing, truly a capstone of my 25 years as an educator.

Then, last month, I was disappointed to see Mr. Duncan reaffirm his support for annual standardized testing of all American schoolchildren in grades 3 to 8 and in high school. This announcement runs counter to our pledge to be future-ready.

The age of standardized testing has de-emphasized creativity and innovation by overly relying on test performance as a criterion of school and student success. This emphasis has resulted in limiting school curricula, robbing students of experience with the arts and other non-tested subjects.

Mr. Duncan has said that “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.” His reaffirmation for the need for continual annual testing contradicts this previous statement.

Let me be clear, my colleagues and I embrace assessment. It is essential to inform instruction and allow educators to respond to the needs of their students. However, it should be done daily to appropriately challenge and support each student. Likewise, broader periodic assessments provide children with multiple ways to demonstrate what they know and can do.

Standardized tests do not acknowledge the developmental differences in children. When we endorse them we subscribe to the belief that all children learn the same way and at the same rate.

Likewise, standardized tests fail to measure the skills that employers have identified as essential for success now and in the future: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.

In addition, as long as standardized-test performance is used as the primary method of judging the success of schools, it will be the primary educational focus of most schools, especially ones that struggle in our most challenged communities.

Alternatives to annual standardized testing of all students to measure school performance do exist. Finland, for example, which has one of the highest-ranked public education systems in the world, randomly selects schools for assessment. The results are confidential, so as not to be punitive in nature.

Singapore, another nation universally lauded for its educational performance, invests heavily in professional development and mentoring of novice teachers as a proactive strategy, rather than using standardized tests to shame schools and teachers.

Even China, which has traditionally valued standardized tests to determine the future success of its students, is realizing that this approach is folly and is working diligently to reduce the burden of testing and instead focus on learning experiences that accentuate creativity.

Every year in the United States, important data on student and school performance is gathered. Students pursuing post-secondary education participate in college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT. Those who choose vocational fields are assessed with the NOCTI exam once they have concluded their programs.

Across the United States, graduation and attendance data are gathered and schools are randomly selected to participate in the National Assessment for Educational Progress. This allows schools to measure and compare academic progress. This assessment, given in grades 4, 8 and 12, provides valuable data on the same subjects that are tested under the federal annual-testing guidelines.

With the overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on the horizon, education in America is at a critical crossroads. Rather than continue with an iteration of the act that brought us No Child Left Behind in 2000, I hope it is reauthorized in a way that captures the essence of the Future Ready Pledge.

It is time for our government officials to display courage and do what is best for children. The rest of us must make sure our voices are heard as we demand that all children receive creative and engaging learning experiences that will best prepare them for the opportunities of the future.

The question remains: Are we working to be future-ready?

I am, Secretary Duncan. How about you?

Thomas Ralston is superintendent of the Avonworth School District (tralston@avonworth.k12.pa.us).

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