Leaves are falling and high-stakes testing is rising.

Our family made the decision recently to have our 3rd and 7th grade children opted-out of the WKCE testing that started this week in their district.  I have, for years, as a teacher and principal, felt deeply that these tests do little to inform our instruction yet the time taken to administer them is overwhelming.  The question of standardized testing is everywhere in the news. Articles about massive testing have become a regular occurrence in the media and organizations like United Opt-Out National are taking this issue to a whole new level.

There are many pros and cons on this issue. Within the last week or so, parents from my daughter’s elementary school have been debating the issue over an email listserv. A parent from the school, Brian Lavendel, recently shared his thoughts about this topic after writing his own opt-out letter for his daughter. Here is an excerpt from his post:

You simply can’t tell much about what a person can do or how they will perform either in high school or college by administering multiple-choice tests. Nor have I seen good evidence that standardized tests tell you what a child needs in the classroom. (What you can do is predict who will do well on the tests–those whose experiences fall most within the cultural norms—i.e. white, middle class–and those who have learned how to take tests.)

 Some say you need standardized tests so that we can compare how kids from Wisconsin are doing with kids from Kansas or from Korea. But I wonder about the usefulness of measurements that can be made so simple that they can compare across broad swaths of humanity. I can’t think of a metric that could be that broad and still be useful.

Add to that the fact that these tests take precious time from classroom instruction. Is that really what we want teachers and students to be focusing on? I don’t. I think in part where I am coming from is that I have much more confidence in our daughter’s teacher to teach and assess my daughter than any standardized test.

It is difficult to know the impact of such testing on our children. A 2010 College of William & Mary study found Americans’ scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking have been dropping since 1990, and researcher Kyung-Hee Kim lays part of the blame on the increase in standardized testing: “If we neglect creative students in school because of the structure and the testing movement… then they become underachievers.”  Looking around the globe, Finland topped the international education (PISA) rankings from 2001-2008, yet has “no external standardized tests used to rank students or schools,” according to Stanford University researchers Linda Darling-Hammond and Laura McCloskey.  Success has been achieved using “assessments that encourage students to be active learners who can find, analyze, and use information to solve problems in novel situations.”

I believe that there are many ways of assessing students’ learning which don’t involve the time and energy being spent on standardized tests that tell us very little about our children’s capacities in life. I welcome your comments.

 

Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

 

Dr. Brian Lavendel studied standardized writing assessment for his PhD, served on the National Council of Teachers of English Testing Committee and the Conference on College Composition and Communication Assessment committee on this topic, and was brought in to consult with ACT on their assessments. Through this work, he concluded that large-scale metrics are inappropriate and invalid for measuring the type of higher-order learning we really want our kids to be experiencing in today’s classrooms. 

It Takes Courage

Painted on the wall at WISN partner school’s Milwaukee College Prep’s (MCP) Lloyd St. campus is the following quote by Andrew Jackson: One person with courage makes a majority.  In my recent visit to MCP’s campuses on Milwaukee’s north side, the depth of compassion, collaboration, and community among their staff and scholars (students) emanated at every turn.  MCP takes Malcom Forbes’s stand that when you cease to dream you cease to live and they live this with their students every day.

Chief Operations Officer and Talent Recruiter, Dr. Kristi Cole, believes that an uncompromising K-8 education is the difference between dreams realized and dreams denied. When asked what the most important quality is that she looks for when hiring staff for MCP, she responded, “Without a doubt, it is professionals who believe in the hope that we offer our scholars.” It sort-of made me want to camp out there for the week.

In Alfie Kohn’s recent article entitled Encouraging Educator Change, he states, “We have to be willing to fight for what’s right even in the face of concerted opposition.” I believe that Dr. Cole and the teachers at MCP show a great deal of courage every single day. They take all students who apply contrary to what people may believe about Milwaukee charter schools. They offer significant staff development around their educational model for their teachers. They communicate deeply with the families of their scholars. Standing up and showing courage in a difficult system is no easy task.

Educators across our state and nation are showing courage every single day. The recent example of hundreds of Florida teachers who returned their ‘pay for performance’ checks is a goose bump-inducing example of such courage. It takes courage to enter into shared governance models and democratic decision-making. It takes courage to create and implement innovative models of instruction. It takes courage to stand up and speak out against high-stakes testing. It takes courage to teach.

Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

Conquering the Testing Monster

Testing. Take off the -ing at the end and you have a dreaded “4 letter word”. We shouldn’t feel that way about testing as, of course, as educators, we know that the collection of relevant data helps us inform instructional practices.  However, the phrase “relevant data” is really important here.  This is talked about everywhere and I love this piece below that addresses this very issue.

The following is a post from Diane Ravitch’s Blog on June 17, 2013 titled First Grade Teacher: How I Conquered the Testing Monster 

In response to the question, “Can You Do the Wrong Thing in the Right Way?,” this teacher responded with a fascinating account of how she conquered the testing monster in her first-grade classroom.

She writes:

I’ve been thinking about testing too. A lot. I teach first grade. My students arrive at the tender age of 5 or 6 and exit at 6 or 7. I give my students 6 benchmark tests a year, 3 in literacy and 3 in math. This past year, 4 more tests were added to the roster – this time on computer. That adds up to 10 – yes 10 -multiple choice tests every year for children who still cry for their moms, pee on the carpet, fall asleep spread eagle on the floor, and poke, prod, tease, and growl at each other. Oh –did I say that the children can’t read, at least for the first third of the year –the first 3 or 4 tests?

I am told the tests are to help inform my instruction. But I know the truth. The tests are there in first grade to get the kids ready for the tests in second grade –the tests that really matter – the tests that will count on the schools’ API and AYP reports. (California tests 2nd grade).

As a pragmatist, I’m efficient, organized, hold traditional values, and like rules and order. I know how to do what is expected of me and how to show results. So I reasoned I could use these structural strengths to get the tests over with, show the expected results, meet the smart goals, so that I could move on to the creative part of teaching –the part that cannot be quantified– the part of teaching where I get to interact with the children I am charged with developing academically, I get to know their passions, fears, ideas, the part of teaching that educates children – where there are no borders between painting and reading and playing basketball and building towers and writing , the part of teaching that is magical, that combines knowledge of standards, expertise, and passion on the part of the teacher with excitement, willingness, surprise, and vision from children.

But that is not what happened. Every breathing space I created for myself and my students by my efficiency got filled up with another expectation. More students – 18 one year, 20 the next, 24 for a few years, then 26; a new policy of all-day, full inclusion of special needs children in the general education classroom; a neighborhood impacted by the housing market decline and its resultant mobile population – causing more to move in and out of my classroom during the year; a school in program improvement – in effect designated as failing, and the resultant punishments – more administrative scrutiny, narrowing of curriculum to math and reading, canceling of arts programs during the school day; flight of families to school with better scores; and noisy classrooms in buildings without connecting walls.

So I got tired. I got beaten down. I got discouraged. And if you think I had it bad, think of the kids. Imagine a teacher for them who is always cross, always serious, harps about the test, never takes the time to ask them how they are doing, is too busy to tie a shoe lace or rub a boo-boo. That is me. I cringe as I write this.

Standardized tests don’t just stop my students from thinking, they teach them not to think. Imagine a 5 year old child who doesn’t read, and may not even speak English. They look at an 8 by 11 inch white paper devoid of all but one or two sketches. They listen as I read the question to them. Then I read the 3 or 4 choices. They pick the choice and fill in the bubble. Imagine the time I spend teaching them how to find the question, scroll with their eyes through the 4 choices, all while listening to me drone on and repeat the question and the choices until all 26 of them have bubbled something in. Imagine that this one test has 8 pages of questions – 15 or 20 questions in all. No wonder I’m cross. No wonder their eyes are glazed and they are growling.

But it gets worse. I am complicit in this next part. Standardized tests actually make students stupid. Yes, stupid. Not only are the kids not thinking, they are losing the ability to think. In my zeal to get administrative scrutiny off me and my students, I mistakenly thought that if I give them the test results they want, then I could do what I know was best for my students. To that end I trained my students to do well in these tests. I taught them to look for loopholes; to eliminate and guess; to find key words; to look for clues; in short, to exchange the process of thinking for the process of manipulation. I capitalized on my knowledge of young children, and the fact that they want to please adults and like to get the answer “right”. I justified my actions by saying that I had no choice, that the consequences of low test scores at my school were too dire to contemplate, and I wasn’t willing to put myself in professional or financial jeopardy. Clearly, testing made me stupid too.

I can’t speak for all my fellow teachers at my school, but I suspect many of them would, at the very least, recognize similar behaviors in their test-teaching practices. So, when despite our best collective efforts at raising test scores failed and my school entered 2nd year program improvement, I surrendered my stupidity and started speaking up, and eventually speaking out. I read research, blogs, government publications, and journals. I read widely from educational, historical, economic, pediatric, and psychological literature. I challenged administrative authority at my school to do the same – read, think, debate, discuss, and much to my surprise, did not get rebuffed. Astonishingly, I got ignored.

At about the same time I woke up out of my testing-induced nightmare , I started to notice the monster I had helped create. My students were only happy when they got the answer right. For many years my collegues and I had noticed a trend in young children – a trend toward passivity in learning. We had theories – all the kids had TV’s in the bedrooms, they had far too much screen time – computer, games, cells, TV’s in cars, lack of adult supervision and interaction, lack of conversational models at home, lack of social models at home, the list went on. But what wasn’t on the list was what I was culpable for – I had become about the right answer. They wanted to please me. They knew that if they waited long enough I would help them find the right answer. And I did.

One day, during small group math rotation, I put up privacy boards during the practice part of a lesson on math reasoning. The story problem went like this: There are 10 buttons on my coat. 6 are red and the rest are blue. How many are blue? We have worked on these kind of problems frequently, and the children have seen them in test format. Using connecting cubes as buttons, the children had to make a model of the problem. Three kids cried that day. The stress of thinking for and by themselves got to them. You see, many of the children had become expert at copying – watching what other children did in the group to get an answer and then providing “their” answer a nanosecond later. The children did not trust themselves enough to even attempt an answer. Their discomfort was palpable, and I was appalled.

Crying notwithstanding, I continued to use privacy boards. I also started to coach the kids about my belief in their abilities. I found that as they worked out a math problem using manipulatives to represent objects, I could lean in and coach them, one to one. Then, when they all had their answers, we pushed down the privacy boards to explore what we had all done. Ever so slowly, over many weeks, they started to regain their confidence.

You might wonder why I had not been doing this kind of teaching all along. I had, 11 years ago, pre-NCLB. Testing, along with the breadth of the standards and the resulting mountain of material to cover, much of it developmentally inappropriate, slowly eroded my professional judgement. Pressure to produce results through collaboration and mind-numbing analysis sapped my energy. A constant barrage of media stories about the ineffectiveness of teachers, some of it supported by leaders at my own school, drowned my spirit. Then I heard you, Diane, speak as a guest of my district and union. I started to read your work and have never looked back.

So thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are truly brave. You inspire me to speak up and speak out. You remind me that knowledge is power –I had forgotten. Now I get my ducks in a row, collect my facts, back up my intuition and experience with research, and speak up without fear or rancor. And in the process of speaking up for myself, I speak up for my students. And ever so slowly I start to rebuild my confidence too.