"Taking Advantage:" How High-Stakes Testing Guarantees Gaps

Why I Don't Care How My High-Scoring Kids Do on Standardized Tests, and Why I Do Care about How they Score with their Teachers

A couple of friends and I were talking about standardized testing when I shared a new Huff Post article by Dr. Yohuru Williams,  "Common Core Kills Curiosity," which I thought contained the zingiest of zings in its conclusion:
"[T]his is the real crime of the education reformers hell bent on quantifying success in the very limited confines of standardized test scores while tearing down schools, slashing budgets, and working feverishly to eviscerate the teaching profession. They are not only killing curiosity but slaughtering the dreams and prospects of millions of students nationwide -- whose very lives may soon be reduced to a test bubble."
A friend of mine followed up with a great question - one that I think bothers most parents when they think about this issue:
This is being asked in sincerity--do you have suggestions that would allow teachers the flexibility to teach in ways that nurture critical thinking, meet student needs AND provide accountability to show student progress? Other than having to make subjective grading of portfolios?
This was my response, with links to evidence supporting my position on high-stakes testing:
There are so many ways to do this [provide authentic assessments], and many of them are ALREADY being done by our teachers! The tests and inflexibility of one-size-fits-all standards just get in the way of those more accurate, more honest formative assessments. It's a total and disproven myth that standardized testing provides "accountability" with any accuracy - just as it's a total myth that standardized tests are a truly OBJECTIVE measure of progress or achievement. ALL grading is subjective. The tests have implicit biases and measure little more than relative affluence and/or the ability to test well. The time restraints, the external stressors, the lack of preparedness and the gap between what is being taught and how that is being tested are all variables that ensure the test cannot provide an objective measure of learning. But even worse, the tests don't measure knowledge. They don't measure critical thinking. They don't measure potential. But our teachers can and do measure those things every day - if we trusted their professionalism and objectivity as much as we trust the tests, our schools would be a much different place.

If we want to follow a model that works, we should look to Finland, where they ONLY do formative assessments and not high stakes testing, and as a result they have time to TEACH and their students are the top scorers on the PISA test they take every 4 years. Here's a great article I read recently on how they grade, and why it works: http://www.mwera.org/.../v25n1-2-Hendrickson-GRADUATE.

One of the main things teachers have told me in the years since my kids have been in school is that the tests NEVER tell them anything they don't already know about their students, and that the students' performance is predictable: they know what smart students will score low (or high) and what mediocre students will score high (or low). The tests just get in the way of the formative assessments they WANT to do to help them meet each kids' needs. And then they have to watch as the scores are then used to "track" the kids into programs, and that tracking is done largely along lines that just make the gaps wider and wider. The TESTS are the problem - these false assessments are what are actually cause the very gaps the reformers claim they can help us erase. I'm not buying any of it. All I want is the teacher's assessment: the teacher is the person trained to evaluate my child's learning and that is the only assessment I am interested in receiving as a parent. Period. I don't give two shits how my kids do on tests that will be used to sort, judge, penalize, and promote inequity in our schools. And it makes me furious that my kids' teachers pay & professionalism is being compromised by my kids' performance on those tests.

Also as a college English teacher, I am 100% in favor of portfolio grading for classes where it's appropriate and am curious as to why you dismiss it from your choices. It's the only way I grade and I have a very formal set of criteria for assessing student work from a holistic perspective that seeks to measure progress and critical thinking as well as the "finished product". I'm not how sure HS/MS teachers do portfolio grading, but in my own experience it's the only assessment that's fair or productive for students.
[end rant]

I'd like to provide some context for where my "rant" was coming from.

This is a question that has been bothering me for many years, as I've seen first hand how kids break down under the pressures of high-stakes tests and I've heard so many stories from parents and teachers as been involved with so many groups and organization committed to supporting public schools.  But mostly, it's my experience as a parent, seeing my own kids go through this testing (and their teachers twist their educational lives around it), and my concerns about how teachers are forced to assess their work that troubles me the most.

Let me illustrate with one, terribly telling, example.  As a parent of a "high scoring" kid who's been placed in the so-called "Talented and Gifted" (TAG) program, these scores have been presented to me as if they are The One True Indicator of my child's success or potential. 

Which is a total joke.  Because here's how my kid measures "success" on his tests [actual conversation from 4th grade, 2013-14 school year]:
Me: How'd the test go?
Kid: Great!  I finished fast enough to read for 45 minutes!
Me: Do you think you got all the questions right?
Kid: [Shrugs, gives look that says "how is that relevant to your first question?"] I don't know. Maybe? Probably.
Me: Well, I'm glad you got some extra reading time. What were you reading?
Kid: Roots.
I don't even know how he scored because when they sent me the scores in the mail I didn't open the envelope.  It's probably around here somewhere.   But I do know that he did really well [Success is doubled! Bonus reading time AND a decent score!] because a couple of months later we got a letter in the mail from something called NUMATS (Northwestern University's Academic Talent Search).

Turns out the kids who score in top 5% all get this letter, which our district sends out to let high scoring kids know about the additional opportunities available to them.  So at first we were like "Yay! More challenge! More rigor! A fun extracurricular that's actually academic, which we love,  instead of sporty, which we hate!"  But it turns out that the "opportunities" being offered were just THE OPPORTUNITY FOR MORE TESTING, which would "prepare him" to take more tests later and provide a "more accurate" assessment of how "advanced" he is.  I kid you not.  The entire program is set up so that high-scoring kids go through this series of additional tests that they otherwise wouldn't take for years - EXPLORE, ACT and SAT - that will allow them to practice and prepare to be better and better at test-taking (and presumably, though this was not stated, to confirm and validate what everybody already knows about these kids: that they're smart good test takers). According to NUMATS, "After students test, parents receive comprehensive information about how their student measures up to other gifted students. This valuable feedback helps families plan for the future."

I cannot even begin to express to you how revolting this idea is to me. Let's break down the "offer" my child was presented:
  • You are a great test-taker, kid! Congratulations!  You are one of the smartest kids best test-takers in our district!
  • As a reward for being a good test-taker, we would like to offer you the opportunity to PAY to take more tests! (If you're poor, we might be able to help with fees).
  • If you do well on those tests, you can take even MORE tests (that are above your level and will test things you haven't been taught yet).
  • Taking these tests will give you an additional advantage so that when it's *really* time for you to take the test, you will do way better than all the kids who did not get this special offer because (1) you're probably so smart! and (2) you will have had a lot practice taking the test and other kids will be taking it for the first time.
In a nutshell:
The kid who is already pretty likely to do well on future tests is being solicited to participate (for pay) to receive a [totally unfair] advantage that will better prepare him to take those future tests than any of the other children in the school.
This advantage will put him in a position that will (much to the pleasure of his parents, I'm sure) guarantee or at least improve his "success" on future tests.  

Success means he scores as high as possible.  Success means he "outperforms" his peers.   Success means he was good at taking the test.  Success means his advantage paid off.
Why, I ask?  Why would we give this advantage to the kids who need it least instead of the kids who need it most 

Why would we not send letters home to the lowest scoring kids inviting them to join a learn-how-to-test camp or something to help raise their scores?

Why would we not invite kids who are doing really well on tests to get involved in a program of actual substance that actually involves teaching and learning?  I know our district does list such opportunities, but they're prohibitively expensive, and we've never been "invited" to participate in them.

Why are we investing in perpetuating the very system that ensures that we will never, ever overcome the gaps that confront our district, our state, our nation?

Why are we not taking seriously the professionalism of our teachers and their ability and expertise to assess and evaluate the performance of our children?

Why are any of us ok with this?

Needless to say we did not "reply now" to "take advantage" of that "opportunity" to further increase the achievement gaps in our district.

And here I was, so naive, thinking it was going to be an opportunity to learn or be challenged beyond the curriculum offered at school.   Not so much.  I'd also like to add that I never heard one word all year about how freaking amazing it was that my kid finished Roots in one week, at 9 years old, devouring it, and followed it up by reading all the slave narratives and historical fiction he could get his hands on.  That's the sort of stuff I wanted to hear about.  But his teacher didn't have time to discuss that with me, because his teacher wasn't assessing that.  And from what I could tell, it was all he could do to keep up with the stuff he "had to" assess.

My younger child is in 2nd grade this year, which is when the testing really begins, now now my worrying begins anew: will the tests be as "low-stakes" for her as they are for her brother, or will she be one of the kids throwing up in the bathroom on test day?  And my fingers are crossed that she won't give a crap, like we don't give a crap, if only to spare her the anxiety, and to remind her that she's worth so much more than a score on a test, no matter how low or how high that score might be.

That's where my perspective is coming from.

So when the question of assessments came up again today, I couldn't help but rant a little on my many reasons for opposing a system where "taking advantage" of opportunities means "taking advantage" of our most vulnerable students and perpetuating our already shameful (and growing) gaps.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction in Wisconsin, Dr. Tony Evers, has been talking a lot about these gaps lately.  He gave his State of Education address last week, calling for more attention to our gaps. He praised schools that take seriously the impacts of poverty and talk frankly about racial inequities.  He says he has a plan for addressing the gaps - "Promoting Excellence for All."  But the plan depends on the same old "accountability measures" that just measure how well kids take tests.  And nothing about how schools need to get creative about addressing the classroom impacts of the opportunity gaps facing our students. Our district calls constantly for the need for equity in our policies and practices - our new slogan is "Futures depend on us...every child, every day."  Every child.  Every day.  And yet: we continue to place our faith, our hopes and our decision-making on a system of high-stakes testing that we know only guarantees that the gaps between "high-performing" and "low-performing" students will widen.


300,000+ people united to fight for climate justice last week.
This was their slogan.
I love it.
And when do parents, students, and educators stand together and say: Enough!?

All over the country, people are starting to stand:

Parents are opting their kids out of standardized tests.
Teachers are refusing to administer tests on ethical grounds.
Students are walking out on a system that values how they score more than who they are, what they know, where they can go with their lives. In Seattle. In Long Island.
School boards are fighting back against political pressures and federal mandates that force our schools to fight for funding and status based on student performance on high stakes tests.

I have been on the "opt out" fence now for several years.  Because one person opting out two kids doesn't send much of a message, even if they are "high scoring" kids and even if I make a big noisy fuss about it. Because I'm afraid of potential backlash on my kids, their teachers, our schools.  Because I love our public schools and don't want to send mixed signals by being the only person waving the banner.

But it's a message we have to send.

It's a message that we have to send together: Parents. Teachers. Students. Community members.  School Board members. Politicians. And every administrator who is brave enough to say:

Teaching matters more than testing. 
Students matter more than scores.

The value of an education cannot be measured in points.
The value of a child cannot be measured.

And every child deserves an excellent education.

It's a simple message.

And it's a message that needs to be sent.
Are we ready to send it?

I love this, too. It's the most coherent, simple, perfect summary I've seen of why we ALL need to join the fight to save public schools. It will only happen through the collaboration of parents, students, educators & community members.

Watch the video and get inspired to get involved. If we don't fight this now, we lose:

The Fight for Public Education: Coming to a School Near You! from Media Mobilizing Project TV on Vimeo.

Public schools are under attack!
What do we do?
Stand up!
Fight back!

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