Talking about Testing

The movement against high-stakes-testing has mushroomed this year. Students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, and even legislators across the country are talking about the overuse and misuse of testing. A glimpse of what they are saying in a moment, but first: here’s your chance to do some of the talking! Please hold these dates for two important events next week:

  1. Wednesday, March 18th, 6-8PM at Sci-Tech: The Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh community meeting will focus on school funding issues, including a session led by Yinzercation steering committee member, Kathy Newman, on the financial impact of high-stakes-testing. Come learn about these un-funded mandates, how they are hurting our schools, what they are costing state tax payers, and discuss what we can do about it. Dinner at 5:30pm and free childcare available.
  2. Saturday, March 21st, 11:30AM-1:30PM at Carnegie Mellon, University Center: Yinzercation is hosting a “Test In” for the community to come see the tests our kids are taking and answer sample questions. The event will feature Dr. Greg Taranto (a PA middle school principal of the year and member of Gov. Wolf’s education transition team!) speaking about the impact of high-stakes-testing on students. You might remember his op-ed piece that went viral last year. We will also hear from several teachers, including Yinzercation steering committee member Steve Singer. Keep your eyes peeled for more information.

Seriously, you don’t want to miss these opportunities to be a part of the conversation. Now, want to hear what some other folks are saying?

Start with three courageous principals from Canon-McMillan School District, right here outside of Pittsburgh, who recently published an article publicly explaining why evaluating teachers using high-stakes-testing is hurting students and schools. Critiquing the use of Value Added Measurement (VAM) statistical models, Dr. Greg Taranto, Mr. Kenneth Schrag, and Dr. Mark Abbondanza said, “school leaders must take action by ‘pulling the curtain’ back on VAMs to understand the detrimental impact they can have on their educational community. As school leaders, we cannot let the effectiveness of our teachers and the culture of our schools be determined by a ‘magical’ mathematical formula that does not calculate humanity in the equation!” Read the whole article for an excellent rundown on the research literature warning against the use of VAM for teacher evaluation. [PA Administrator, Feb. 2015]

A brand new report released yesterday supports their conclusion. A detailed analysis of the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP) rating system found that – despite its claim to use “multiple measures” to evaluate schools and teachers – 90% of the calculation is based on high-stakes standardized tests. Yet, “standardized tests measure just part of the expectations we hold for students and schools.” Even more problematically, “these measures are closely associated with student poverty rates and other out- of-school factors—raising questions about whether the measures are a valid and reliable measure for purposes of school accountability.” [Research for Action, March 2015 report]

In other words, SPP scores measure student poverty. Period. Even the much-touted Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS) component of the score, which is supposed to calculate projected student growth while controlling for out-of-school factors, miserably fails to do so and instead strongly correlates with poverty. The report concludes, “our analyses suggest that Pennsylvania’s School Performance Profiles could be interpreted as a complex profile of student poverty.” That’s right: teachers and schools being held accountable, not for what students learn, but for the poverty level of the families they serve. And rather than send resources to support those families, these systems punish schools and teachers, threatening them with closure, firing, and more disruptive “reforms.”

Over 2,000 education researchers sent an open letter to the Obama administration and Congress last month saying the same thing. Citing reams of data, the researchers wrote, “we strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” The letter went on to quote evidence at length from a new Policy Memo from the National Education Policy Center, which effectively summarizes a “broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform.” [NEPC, “Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Time to Move Beyond Test-Focused Policies,” Feb. 2015]

OK, so we have local principals, Pennsylvania policy analysts, and national education researchers all pointing to the evidence that high-stakes-testing is not working. What about those most affected: the students? They’re not being quiet either.

Last week, thousands of students in New Jersey refused to take the new high-stakes-tests in that state. In one district alone, a full 30% of the students refused to take the PARCC test, which is being used by several states to align with the new Common Core standards. [WABC-TV7, 3-2-15] One student who did take the test, wrote about the experience in a widely shared piece for the Washington Post: 10th grader Marina Ford explained how much class time she has lost to test-prep, how confusing and error-riddled the tests are, even for honors students like herself, and how these high-stakes-accountability-tests have prevented her from getting ready for the ones that really matter to her, such as the AP exams. [Washington Post, 3-7-15]

And it’s not just in New Jersey. Last year, over 60,000 students refused to take similar tests in New York, and the numbers are expected to be even larger this year when students in that state are scheduled to begin testing next month. [New York State Allies for Public Education] In New Mexico last week, thousands of students refused to take the tests and many hundreds protested by walking out of their high schools. [Daily Caller, 3-2-15] Similarly, last fall over 5,000 seniors in Colorado refused new state tests and hundreds participated in mass walk-outs. [Colorado Public Radio, 11-14-14] I could go on and on.

There are more teachers and principals speaking out and putting their jobs on the line, too. In a piece shared over 10,000 times on Facebook in the past few days, one teacher wrote an open letter to her students called, “I am Sorry for What I am About To Do To You.” Carol Burris, a highly regarded educator who was New York state’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year, is now calling on parents to refuse testing. A few weeks ago she wrote:

“It has become increasingly clear that Congress does not have the will to move away from annual high-stakes testing. The bizarre notion that subjecting 9-year-olds to hours of high-stakes tests is a “civil right,” is embedded in the thinking of both parties. Conservatives no longer believe in the local, democratic control of our schools. Progressives refuse to address the effects of poverty, segregation and the destruction of the middle class on student learning. The unimaginative strategy to improve achievement is to make standardized tests longer and harder. …

“The only remedy left to parents is to refuse to have their children take the tests. Testing is the rock on which the policies that are destroying our local public schools are built. If our politicians do not have the courage to reverse high-stakes testing, then those who care must step in.

“I am a rule follower by nature. … But there comes a time when rules must be broken — when adults, after exhausting all remedies, must be willing to break ranks and not comply. That time is now. The promise of a public school system, however imperfectly realized, is at risk of being destroyed. The future of our children is hanging from testing’s high stakes. The time to Opt Out is now.” [Washington Post, 2-19-15]

While test refusal is one of several strategies to combat high-stakes-testing – and we will be talking about those at our events next week – it is clearly growing across the country, and with good reason. I leave you here with the words of New Jersey parents who made this powerful video, and look forward to continuing the conversation on March 18th and March 21st.

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