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Overtired of Being Overtested

Parents join educators in battle against mandated tests

By Cindy Long

Massachusetts third-grader Lily Valdes Greenwood suffers from serious test stress. Like most nine-year-olds on the planet, acing standardized tests isn’t really her thing. She’s a voracious reader—the Kane Chronicles, Percy Jackson, and anything about marine biology top her reading list. She also has a wide vocabulary and a creative mind. But she’s not terribly good at sitting still, following multi-step directions or memorization. Unfortunately, those last three are pretty much what standardized tests are all about, so Lily worries. She’s afraid she won’t do well and will let her teachers down.

“The teachers teach us, and if we’re not learning what we’re supposed to, they may get fired,” she says.

Nobody told Lily that her teachers would get fired, but she’s a smart girl. She knows the stakes are incredibly high for educators and schools, and that both are desperate for high scores. Why else do she and her classmates spend so much time during the school year preparing and practicing for the test?
Lily’s father, playwright and author David Valdes Greenwood, says she has been stressed about tests since kindergarten.

“The kids pay a very high price. It chips away at their sense of self as learners from a young age; telling them that there is one way to learn and boxing them into narrow ways of seeing their skills and their contributions.”


Parents Join Call to End Overtesting
Parents like Greenwood say enough is enough. In fact, they’re shouting it, in large numbers. In Oklahoma, 25,000 parents and educators rallied at the state Capitol last spring to protest cuts in education funding.

Rhonda Harlow joined the protesters as a parent and as a teacher.

“Testing in schools is incredibly grueling,” says the middle school reading specialist. “I want students to have a love of learning, but we have to devote so much time and energy to testing that it can squash their dreams. They look at that snapshot that we’ve given them and internalize it to define who they are and what they can achieve.”

Harlow’s son is a seventh grader who wants to be an archaeologist. When he got a low score on a mandated test, he was discouraged and told his mom he’d probably never be an archaeologist.

“I tried to reassure him that a test on one day has nothing to do with what he’ll be able to accomplish in the future,” Harlow says. “As educators, we should foster lifelong learning. That can’t be done with a test.”

Opting-out protests have taken place in Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Alabama, and other states. Grassroots parent movements say they will protest until overtesting is curbed.

NEA leaders and members—who have been clamoring to stop the testing madness for years—are grateful parents have joined the fray. Now there’s hope that by acting together, a movement could finally end the current drill and kill testing regime.

“It’s time for legislators to hear the growing chorus of voices from parents, teachers, students, and entire communities expressing concern about the detrimental effects and harm caused by the overuse and misuse of high-stakes standardized testing,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “The federal testing mandates, combined with state and district level assessments, have snowballed to create the feeling that our schools are not centers of learning, but rather test-prep factories.”

How did we get here? How did test scores become the driving force of public education?
Monty Neill is the executive director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which focuses on assessment reform, addressing standardized test quality, responsible uses of test and assessment results, and the development of educationally beneficial assessments.

NEA Today talked to Neill to find out how the nation’s obsession with testing grew to such monstrous proportions and how we can finally end the tyranny of standardized testing.

What’s the average time spent on testing in schools around the country?
No one knows for sure the average time students spend on test prep. A recent survey of the Colorado Education Association found that teachers spend 30 percent of their time on prep and testing. It’s not uncommon for districts to test their students 10 times a year. Some districts have more than 30 tests a year in one grade. Pittsburgh has 35 tests in grade four, with nearly as many in some other grades. Chicago had 14 mandated tests for kindergarteners, and nearly as many in grades one and two.

How do tests breed more tests?
The No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB), which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, required schools to test students for proficiency each year in reading and math in grades 3–8, then once during high school. The objective was to have all students proficient by 2014, and there were strict penalties for not meeting these and other, often unattainable, goals. Fears of low test scores and NCLB sanctions fueled the testing explosion. States and districts conducted more tests to use as test preparation and predictors. If students didn’t do well on the predictor local tests, schools would intervene with more prep and more practice tests to raise the scores of mandated federal tests. Test prep has become a very large part of the school year, especially in low-income communities where many students perform poorly on the tests.
For too many low-income students of color, school means standardized tests that they know they won’t do well on. It lowers self-esteem, which impacts concentration and learning and, therefore, lowers test scores.

Teachers are often blamed for low test scores, when in fact the tests are what lead to bad teaching. Can you explain how this happens?
Drill and kill produces short-term increase in test scores, but it doesn’t boost scores in the long run because there’s no foundation to build on. When I ran track and field in high school, I’d eat a candy bar or tablespoon of honey for that boost of energy I needed for a race. But you can’t exist on sugar fixes and carbohydrates because they don’t provide the nutritional foundation you need to build muscle and fitness for the long term. Teachers have to give students sugar and carb fixes during test prep—that’s the drill and kill—so they can do well on the tests, but any knowledge gain is almost instantly burned off and forgotten once the test is over, and very little real academic progress is made for the long term.

Testing also eliminates the richness of the curriculum, eliminating subjects like art, music, even social studies, so that more time can be spent on drills in reading and math. We hear from college professors that more and more students don’t have the critical thinking necessary for college level courses. Students just want to know what the right answer is. After so many years of multiple choice tests where only one answer can be correct, they don’t understand that there might be more than one good answer, or that it could change under different circumstances.

How has tying teacher evaluations to test scores increased the testing mania?
First, NCLB used tests to judge schools, with low-performing schools suffering strict sanctions that could close the school, fire the staff, or turn it into a charter with private control. Now, 43 states have been given NCLB waivers. But in exchange for those waivers, which free them from the pressure of school sanctions, test scores are used to hold individual educators accountable.
In some states with NCLB waivers, test scores comprise 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. The Tennessee Education Association and the Florida Education Association have turned to litigation to put an end to the testing and accountability madness. In some parts of the country, every teacher in every grade and subject must be evaluated by test scores, so now schools are giving standardized tests in physical education, art, even welding.

Not surprisingly, when a teacher’s livelihood and reputation are at risk, she is going to pay a lot more time and attention on test preparation. Again, the tests breed more tests with practice tests and test preparation for the big test.

Value-added models (VAMs) were developed to supposedly answer the “one-size-does-not-fit-all” problem and account for differences in test scores among special education, English language learners, and low-income students. But the American Statistical Association proved the models don’t work. Why are they still used by districts?

I believe that underneath this is an admission of defeat. This country has refused to adequately fund schools attended by low-income kids. Poverty, constant mobility, lack of adequate health care, the stresses of crime, living in near constant fear of violence—all of this stuff has the biggest impact on learning and is far more than schools can tackle alone. So in essence, it’s an admission of failure. We don’t really expect this country to address the causes and consequences of poverty, so instead we hold the schools accountable. Certainly education plays an enormous role in lifting people out of poverty, but to hold them solely accountable for the impact poverty has on current students—and to do so using test scores and inaccurate VAMs—defeats the goal.

What does good assessment look like?
Assessment does not mean test. The best way to assess students is to look at their ongoing work rather than a snapshot from a standardized test. Students produce lots of work and it tells you a lot about their progress and what they’re being taught.

For example, the New York Performance Standards Consortium includes 39 public schools where students produce extended tasks in language arts, math, science, and history. They produce a literary analytic paper, a social history research paper, an extended math problem, and a science lab or research project. While the particular work each student does is determined by the student and teacher, the scoring process is the same across the schools. It’s done by committees that include outside experts, and students must orally defend their projects. The consortium schools use a common scoring guide, and samples are re-scored independently to ensure consistency across schools.

The schools are demographically similar to the entire New York City student body, and their graduation rates are significantly higher for English language learners, students of color, and students with disabilities. Assessment is more accurate than an NCLB test because it includes a wider range of what the students can do. The assessing is done by the teacher, and it’s done over time. It also shows how assessment can lead to a more positive response of assistance, not punishment. This is where we should be—in a positive cycle where assessment plays an appropriate role, not a detrimental, punitive role.

Why are more parents joining the fight against testing?
Parents see kids who are bored, frustrated, and stressed. At the dinner table, they ask their kids what they did that day, and hear, “We had another test. It was really boring.” Parents don’t want their kids educated in this manner.

Last spring, parents joined the teacher boycott in Seattle known as Scrap the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress test). They won a major battle, and that made a real difference to people’s spirits—they realized it’s possible to wage and win fights against the testing regime. Now, there are grassroots anti-testing campaigns taking place all over the country.

Parents are realizing they can effect change. In many places, teachers are supportive of parents opting out of the test. Some administrators are supportive, and so are some legislators—like U.S. Representatives Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who introduced the Student Testing Improvement and Accountability Act to go back to grade span testing.

Now that there’s a movement, how will it impact Common Core testing?
The new Common Core tests are still mostly standardized tests. There are some open-ended questions, and there are some fairly good tasks, but assessment and education experts believe that while the Common Core tests are a bit better at accurately measuring student progress, they don’t represent the major change the country needs in student assessment. What that means is hundreds of millions of dollars—not to mention huge amounts of angst and fighting—will be spent in order to get tests that are just marginally better. (See NEA’s position on course correction for the Common Core.)

We still need to advocate for assessments that include the ongoing portfolio of student work. That is still possible with the Common Core if the assessments continue to evolve. Lots of teachers saw the Common Core as an opportunity for much deeper teaching, and the standards clearly opened the door. The fear is that the current tests are going to slam that door shut because they’re so narrowly construed and the stakes are still too high. We must reduce the impact of the Common Core tests, take the weight off them, and don’t conduct them in every grade. Looking at grade spans is what to do. We must go back to local and state assessments that test students only once per grade span: usually, once in grades three through five, once in grades six through nine, and once in grades 10 through 12.


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