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What Will High Stakes Tests Really Show Us?

The legacy of centuries of oppression and prejudice remain with us, now made even more complex by burgeoning income inequality, clear class differences between and within groups, and growing diversity in the American population. How do you close the achievement gap? How can schools live out their historic promise of providing a second chance to all Americans in a society where inequality seems not to shrink but grow?" (McCabe et al, 2005, p.143)


As we try to cool off during the summer, many of us take this time to reflect on the year behind us and the year that we have ahead. When it comes to education, it's been a brutal couple of years both financially and politically. We have seen low enrollment, school closures, budgets that didn't pass, rising class sizes, and teacher lay-offs.

In New York State, we also saw what seemed to be a very difficult year when it comes to high-stakes testing. Not only did it seem as though they hit us all at once, we started the year off by seeing a change in cut scores that tell us the difference between a 2 (doesn't meet the standard) and a 3 (meets proficiency). It wasn't good news for all of us because the standard became harder to meet, so more and more students didn't meet it. What does that mean for all of us as educators, students and parents? Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy? We heard we are a failing nation during political campaigns so therefore the new testing measures will show us how badly we are failing?

We do not need high-stakes testing to tell us that we have inequalities in education. All we need to do is drive from a city school to a suburban school to see there are inequalities. Class size, student preparedness, parental involvement, and proper facilities are just a few of those inequalities that many of our students and colleagues have to face every day.

The U.S. Department of Education tells us that the best instructional practices include 90-minute literacy blocks, hands-on or project-based learning, and rotations that encourage small group instruction and engage learners through the use of technology like Smartboards, IPads, MP3 players netbooks and other devices. In fact, The Office of Innovation and Improvement is a part of the U.S. Department of Education. That particular office focuses on bringing new innovations to the school setting. However, that is not how the high-stakes testing created by state education departments across the country assesses our students, and therefore potentially evaluate our teachers and administrators.

Some high-stakes English/language arts (ELA) exams last for three days and ask our students, who are encouraged to learn through hands-on activities, to sit down and take a pencil and paper test that lasts 70 minutes each day. In New York State, during the week that follows the ELA exam, we ask these same children in grades 3 through 5 to sit down for another hour each day to take the state math exam. We follow those two high-stakes testing weeks with a day to complete a field test that randomly tests every 3rd-5th grade student on either math or ELA or both. Our 4th graders are the least fortunate because they get the opportunity to take two days of high-stakes science tests.

All in all, some of our students spend four weeks taking high-stakes tests in the month of May. Those students are between the ages of 8 and 11 years old. Some of our students falter after the first round of testing. Other students are exhausted by the end of the second exam and fill in random bubbles just so they can finish the exam and get it over with.

These exams not only affect our 3rd through 5th grade students and teachers but they affect our kindergarten through 2nd grade students and teachers as well. Hallways around elementary schools are blocked off with huge signs that say "TURN BACK. TESTING" so students do not walk down the hallway and distract other students when they are taking the test. Even in the best of conditions, teachers are stressed out and so are our students. This stress creates a less than warm climate in schools.

If high-stakes testing is so important, why is it that most schools do not hang them on the walls, like they do other student work? As a school principal, I have never seen the New York State exams hanging for all visitors to see. We do not hang up last year's 3 or 4 level exam. We do not hang up posters that cheer on our state exams. We know that testing is our reality, but we do not promote test taking. In elementary school we promote learning. We have plenty of other ways we assess learning.

As we continue to discuss teacher and administrator evaluation, let's also include in the discussion the millions of other things we do with students in the months that lead up to those high-stakes tests that seem to mean so much to people who clearly have not spent quality time in a school system. Every day is not election day for us. Every day we walk into our schools is an opportunity to change a life. We know we have work to do to change education, and blaming us for a failing system when it really isn't failing does not help the process.

We want equality as much as everyone else. We want all students to have access to a quality education. We are just not sure high-stakes testing is telling us anything other than what we already know; schools are not created equal, nor are the homes our students come from.

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McCabe, Nelda Cameron, Luvern L. Cunningham, James Harvey & Robert H. Koff (2005), The Superintendent's Fieldbook: A Guide for Leaders of Learning, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA"
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