Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Why I Opt-in and Support Standardized Testing

Growing up, I always took standardized tests. Every year, our teachers would say, “Get a good night’s sleep and eat breakfast in the morning. You have a test tomorrow.” And that was it.

I happened to start my career in education right around the time when this approach to standardized testing completely shifted under the pressure of the No Child Left Behind Act.

As an educator for the past 16 years, I've seen a lot of bad things. When I taught in a Title I school in rural Louisiana where more than 90% of children lived below the federal poverty line, the principal kept a paddle on her wall and would use it to beat children. Corporal punishment was the school's main way of disciplining and guiding children, and there was no time for more proactive strategies like community and relationship building because we were supposed to be marching through the standards at a break-neck pace.

Working in schools in Houston, I saw classrooms with no books; the teachers had removed them and decided to teach reading through the use of test prep passages instead. The administration canceled science and social studies classes to do double blocks of reading and writing, since those were the only tested subjects in third grade. 

I've taught in districts that mandated benchmark testing every two weeks in four subject areas, which meant I had too little time for teaching. 

There is no doubt that No Child Left Behind has cast an ugly and dark shadow over our schools, our teachers, and our children. 

And yet still I support the use of standardized testing. 

Why is that?  

The achievement gap is real. 

No Child Left Behind mandated that every state test its children and that we break down the results by racial and socio-economic demographics. This data is incredibly helpful to us as a nation. It forces us to acknowledge that your zip code really does determine your destiny in this country.

In Austin, the city I live in, there is a very clear correlation: If you live in the more expensive parts of town, you are more likely to be white and you are more likely to have higher results on the state test. Without a standardized test, this gap would be much more difficult to see, quantify, and address.

The achievement gap is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time. We will never achieve the American promise of "liberty and justice for all" if we cannot ensure that all children develop basic mathematics and literacy skills. 

Standardized tests help us see the achievement gap in an objective, quantifiable way. They help us see which children are reading below grade level and are not acquiring the foundational math skills needed to move into more complicated math. Closing the proficiency gap is not enough to close the much larger gap, but it is start. If we "opt out" of standardized testing, we opt out of getting the kind of objective data we need to hold ourselves accountable for ensuring success for all children. 

The tests measure basic proficiency.

Of course any test will likely have one or two questions that seem silly and irrelevant or are culturally or geographically biased, but, in general, the third grade and sixth grade reading and math tests that I have worked to prepare children for over the course of the past 16 years are all things that they should be able to do. And they are all things that I would want my own children to be able to do. 

I absolutely agree that these tests measure only a small sliver of what is necessary for success in college, the 21st century work place, and life as leaders in our families and communities, but it's a start. It's a non-negotiable. You aren't going to reach your fullest potential out in the world if you can't read a piece of text and understand what it means. 

I care more about things like critical thinking, problem-solving, social and emotional intelligence, executive functioning, time management, integrity, and empathy, but I also want my students to be on par with their wealthier peers academically. Standardized tests help me keep my eye on that bar.

You do not have to resort to "drill and kill" to get good results on the state assessment.

The major problem with NCLB is not the tests themselves; it's the way districts have chosen to respond to the pressure of increasing student performance on the test. 

As an educator, I have intentionally resisted the pressure and worked to buffer my students from it. 

One year I worked at a school that started with 6th graders, the vast majority of whom lived below the federal poverty line. The school assigned me all of the most struggling readers. They put them into a single class. I had children who came in reading at a 1st grade level. Did I choose to resort to "drill and kill" to try and get them to pass the test nine months later? Absolutely not. Because that's not how children learn to read in the most efficient and effective way possible. Further, “drill and kill” does not create lifelong readers.

What did I do instead? I worked to teach them to fall in love with reading. I would give them a very brief strategy lesson, read to them, and then let them spend the bulk of their time reading books of their own choice (even comic books). I would then conference with each child to assess what strategies they were already using well and what I should teach them next.

When children fall in love with reading, they start reading all the time. They read while they wait in line, they read in the car or on the bus on the way home from school, they read under their covers at night when they are supposed to be sleeping. And the more they read, the higher their reading levels climb. 

By the end of the year, every one of those 6th graders passed the state reading assessment. Nearly all of them came from homes impacted by poverty and were almost all children of color.

Other years I worked in a public Montessori program where students self-direct their learning. For example, I had a 7 and 8 year-old decide they wanted to study the Bermuda Triangle and share their knowledge with others by making a coloring book. In the middle of the process, they decided that they wanted to sell the coloring book in order to raise money for new classroom materials. They developed their project planning skills, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, entrepreneurial abilities, and public speaking capacity through this project—all skills they will need for success in college and the 21st century workplace.

And both of those children passed the standardized reading and math tests by the end of 3rd grade. In fact, 100% of the children in my classroom passed both state assessments, regardless of their race, their parents’ income, or the kind of trauma that was present in their home lives.

We can provide a high-quality educational experience and ensure that children do well on standardized tests. 

I was a classroom teacher for nine years and have worked hard to provide an enriching educational experience and ensure that my children pass the state test. My students have written and directed their own plays, read books they love, cooked food in class, planned their own field trips, run their own businesses, discussed issues in daily community meetings and problem-solving circles, constructed their own knowledge through the use of hands-on materials AND they have done well on standardized tests. It’s absolutely possible to do both.

First, you have to have a clear sense of what the outcomes are. What do we want children to master by the end of the year? It's not enough to read the standards; you have to really unpack them by analyzing various ways in which the standard will be tested and how children will have to transfer their learning. 

Second, you have to have a clear sense—at all times—of where every single child is in relation to the end goal. This task is difficult in classrooms of 20 or 30 children or in middle schools when you have multiple classes (I've taught both) but it's not impossible. It takes an incredible tracking system and the commitment to maintain it. 

Third, you have to let every child work at their own level. It's worth repeating: In order to help children maximize their growth, CHILDREN MUST WORK AT THEIR OWN LEVEL. If children are working on material that is too easy for them, you are holding them back from growing as much as they can and they will likely grow very bored. If children are working on material that is too hard for them, they will become frustrated and disengaged. If children work at their level, they will master concepts more quickly and make faster progress. The gaps will start to close.

And herein lies the problem. Our education system is modeled after factories with everyone doing the same thing at the same time in the same way. This model is flawed. It does not allow children to close their academic gaps efficiently or effectively. 

Fourth, teachers need time and support to come together and analyze how it's going. They need to dissect what children are and are not mastering and retaining, and they need to generate next steps. I have never worked in a school that does this well. 

Real reform is needed. We need to design schools that give children the opportunity to work at their individual levels and work on something until it is mastered (while keeping their innate curiosity and love of learning alive) and schools that support teachers to implement the continuous improvement cycle of assessing, analyzing, and acting so that they can strategically and systematically support children to close the achievement gap.

But opting out of the test isn't necessary in order to drive this kind of reform. In fact, we need the test to continue to provide objective data about how all of our children are doing—regardless of their race or class. Standardized tests help illuminate the achievement gap and push us to hold ourselves accountable for closing it. 


Individual teachers, principals, and parents have more power than they realize to opt out of "drill and kill." The test itself is not the problem, teaching to the test is.



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12 comments:

Catfish said...

Thanks for writing this! It's worth nothing that several civil rights groups have come out in opposition to opt out because of the things you're naming.

It's CRITICAL that we indict test culture, but not tests. It's much easier to demonize an inanimate test or a faceless corporation, than to face up to the fact that we are substituting test prep for the kind of teaching that will actually result in kids who can easily pass these tests as a sidenote to all the other awesome stuff they can do.

Erin Curran said...

I'm not sure what to believe but my understanding of why some parents opt-out is because the actual experience of taking the test is demoralizing to some children -- the duration, the child's reaction to not understanding questions, feeling like a failure. My kids haven't taken any of these test yet so I'm only sharing what I've heard. Thoughts?

Also, I agree that assessments can be very useful but HOW do parents indict "test culture" instead of the tests? I think a lot of parents are feeling like this is the only way they can let people know they are not happy with the way things are going.

27163c5c-f459-11e4-82f7-9ffd257606e3 said...

I think you make a lot of fantastic points. I worry though that it's unrealistic for all teachers to hold your same perspective. You've reached a lot of low-achievement students. But you are a sample size of 1 and there may be many school districts where such methods may not work as well.

And you miss two important points: 1) NCLB and Race to the Top were both devised to eliminate not illuminate the achievement gap. We already had tests to show us the gap existed so I'm still not clear why we needed to add more to tell us something we already knew and measured. 2) Strategies like tying teacher pay and federal funding levels to student outcomes have incentivized teaching to the test rather than all the skills you've highlighted as important.
I think the real things parents are fed up with is that the amount of tests and the stakes of the tests are so high that many teachers don't feel free to teach the way you outline.

Laura Shaw said...

This post talks about the factory framework, but it sounds like the thinking is still stuck within it.

When you talk about mastering and retaining, what do you mean? Are you referring to content? Content is cheap. It's ubiquitous. Content mastery is dead because content changes faster than ever now. 21st century learning requires process, learning how to learn, and creativity. (The World Bank talked about this over ten years ago.) I don't think there's a good standardized test that measures that.

Also, we don't need standardized tests to tell us that students from high SES families consistently perform better. We have research from other disciplines that show us that. That is old news.

And the argument about proficiency? Well, that's assuming that whoever determines what is considered proficient by what grade, is actually a good benchmark. I find this questionable. Children are not widgets. There will always be differences. And teachers know when someone is clearly far behind. But standardized testing cares little about the differences due to maturation. That's a problem.

The bottom line is that testing comes from an industrial framework mentality. It's not even good big data that is useful. Clearly, the testing from NCLB has done nothing to close the achievement gap. Thus, I cannot figure out how more testing is the answer.

What we need is an entirely different framework of education, like Montessori -- not Montessori stuffed into a industrial framework mentality. Reform is useless. Reform is still about a framework that prepares our children for a society and an economy that no longer exists.

And we really shouldn't be talking about "workplace" since it's very likely that our children will need to create their own work rather than relying on others to provide it for them. We are a network society with a knowledge economy. And we need to be thinking about how to bring education that prepares all children for that society. With an entirely different framework, we can determine the sorts of assessments needed to tell teachers - who are actually working with the children - where the children need guidance. As it stands now, the tests are not doing this.

Cali Cole said...

thank you, sara, for writing this.

traintheteacher.me said...

Speaking from a perspective outside the United States some thoughts.

- There are plenty of other ways for teachers to assess student learning than standardised tests. When standardised tests are used, data should be used exclusively for the purposes of informing next learning steps for the kids. Yet in America school funding and teaching salaries are tied to it, those perverse incentives is what drives a lot of poor pedagogical decisions.

- a problem with the overall teacher preparation and on-going teacher education. High-performing school systems have a strong emphasis on ensuring their teachers are well trained before they start teaching and continue to develop their teaching workforces over time. Parachuting teachers with a few weeks training into high-needs classrooms is unheard of.

- the school funding mechanisms in the United States seem to favour wealthier districts. Schools serving low-income students get more funding per head than their wealthier counterparts.

- is this an achievement gap or a wealth gap? Schools can do a lot but they shouldn't be going it alone in cleaning up the mess crated by poor social policy decisions. Imagine if the millions poured into standardised testing was instead used for good housing, health care and food for kids. Those factors have a far bigger impact on learning than standardised tests.

Nora said...

Most who criticize testing do NOT criticize testing itself. They (we) criticize the use of testing to decide which schools should stay open and which should close, which should receive funding and which should not. Many of the school districts that serve the poorest students have been underfunded for years and years. Using test scores to further deplete funding is unjust, and dehabilitates the teachers. Scores continue to be deeply deeply tied to parent income.

Nora said...

To further explain:
Your argument does not actually engage with the most important policy question surrounding testing.

Your analysis asks:
does testing provide important information about a child's reading and writing skills?

Most people wouldn't disagree with you, even those who are deeply opposed to school testing.

Opposition to school testing comes for two main reasons:
1. School funding (and school closure) has become tied to testing outcomes.
2. Testing outcomes are deeply correlated to parental income.

As you surely realize, there are schools and school districts that have been deeply underfunded for decades and decades. Deep poverty, coupled with longstanding school funding inequality, is a source of the achievement gap. Lack of funding has long undermined the efforts of good teachers and administrators in these districts. At the same time, these schools receive the students with the highest need.

Should the schools that serve these students lose funding when test scores do not improve? To me, such policies further harm the poorest students, and THAT'S why I find testing problematic, though I have absolutely no opposition to testing for testing's sake.

kzaback said...

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, for this post. I work in education policy and my husband is a teacher. Both of us feel strongly about this and I spend much of my time trying to communicate these concepts. You said this in one of the most comprehensive, complete ways I have seen.

Mary Blakley said...

How often do students take standardized tests in Texas? In Ontario students write them at the end of the primary and junior grades (grade three and grade six) for math and language. There is also a math test in grade nine (not required for high school graduation) and the Ontario Secondary Schools Literacy Test (required for graduation, although there is also a course option). I'm generally happy with the way standardized testing is done in Ontario, as it focuses on core competencies without eating up a huge chunk of our students' lives.

Jenn said...

I really appreciate this piece. I have a background as an evaluator and grant writer for evidence based health programs and now work in education. The main question always asked is: does this work? My background in evaluation makes me view many of the programs we do through a different lens than many colleagues. Doing things without a clear measurable goal, and building social bonds is completely appropriate goal, is a recipe for disaster. Every helping/social sector profession is filled with very well meaning people, some of whom are effective and some of whom are not. How do we replicate what works if we aren't measuring anything? I agree that the implementation of testing is hugely dysfunctional and often times detrimental to the overall goal of teaching and learning. I also agree that many times we are not measuring what we think we are measuring. But I cannot think of another way to measure outcomes in such a large system as public education without some form of standardized testing. I would love to hear more from you on this blog about your thoughts on educational policy.

Jenn said...

I really appreciate this piece. I have a background as an evaluator and grant writer for evidence based health programs and now work in education. The main question always asked is: does this work? My background in evaluation makes me view many of the programs we do through a different lens than many colleagues. Doing things without a clear measurable goal, and building social bonds is completely appropriate goal, is a recipe for disaster. Every helping/social sector profession is filled with very well meaning people, some of whom are effective and some of whom are not. How do we replicate what works if we aren't measuring anything? I agree that the implementation of testing is hugely dysfunctional and often times detrimental to the overall goal of teaching and learning. I also agree that many times we are not measuring what we think we are measuring. But I cannot think of another way to measure outcomes in such a large system as public education without some form of standardized testing. I would love to hear more from you on this blog about your thoughts on educational policy.

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