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Rog Lucido: How do High Stakes Tests Affect Our Students?

Guest post by Rog Lucido.

NCLB ushered in the national era of high-stakes testing in all of our schools. Soon the consequences of this testing became apparent. The Alliance for Childhood revealed that parents, teachers, school nurses, psychologists, and child psychiatrists reported that the stress of high-stakes testing was literally making children sick. Kathy Vannini, the elementary school nurse in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, said she dreads the springtime weeks when children must take the MCAS -- the lengthy tests now required of Massachusetts students starting in third grade. "My office is filled with children with headaches and stomachaches every day," she reports. One third-grader was beside himself on the morning of the test--he could not stop sobbing. I've been a school nurse for twenty years, and the stresses on children have worsened in that time. But this testing has greatly increased their anxiety level."... The school's counselor, he added, reports more and more students with anxiety-related symptoms, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, and the like..."

"I am seeing more families where schoolwork that is developmentally inappropriate for the cognitive levels of children is causing emotional havoc at home," says Dr. Marilyn Benoit of Howard University, president-elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "The pressure on teachers to teach to tests and outperform their colleagues is translating into stressful evenings for parents and children." Sharna Olfman, a developmental and clinical psychologist at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, says, "Developmentally inappropriate early childhood education that is insensitive to individual learning styles is on the rise. It is no coincidence that we are witnessing an unprecedented increase in the number of young children being labeled and treated for psychiatric illnesses ranging from learning disabilities and attention disorders to anxiety and depression."

From another view, the high-stakes testing system does not take into account children's mental or physical conditions before, during or after testing. The system also does not consider students' learning styles. It does not seek the best way of getting the truth from each student. It believes that the testing format (in the vast majority of cases, multiple choice) is student learning style neutral. It's not. There is a silent prejudice that gives high-stakes testing advantages to some students learning styles over others. It is not just based on Jungian typology but will also find support in Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences as well as Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic learning styles. As a simple example, approximately 25% of students are introverts. They prefer silence so they can process internally. The 75% of extroverts prefer to process by hearing themselves think as they talk. Since silence is a key element of these tests, Meyers-Briggs research shows the validity of such learning style preferences on student assessments. As intuitive students are much better in reading interpretations, we find that introverted intuitive students are the best scorers on these 'learning style neutral' assessments. High-stakes testing development is so myopic in its construction and interpretation of resulting scores, that it does not concern itself with the uniqueness of individual students and how to best extract their knowledge and skills. Its focus is to produce a number that can then be claimed as the truth. Meanwhile without realizing it kids are being horribly misjudged, educators are drawing irrelevant conclusions and parents are being sold disinformation. This really is a gross miscarriage of justice.

In like fashion we need to see student disregard as it is happening -- by what students are not being taught, how schooling is being delivered and what they are being denied. These are the educational travesties of commission and omission. The current thrust is to train students to diminish their natural desire to learn about the world in exchange for improving their state test scores. Schools contribute to the development of each student's self-image by reinforcing both the positive and negative aspects of their academic and social successes and failures. High-stakes testing has created a culture where students can demean themselves by identifying who they are in terms of their test results: "Oh, I am just basic, (proficient, far below basic, etc.)". This form of self recrimination can stay with a student their whole life. This is evidenced when schools develop incentives with privileges for students who score well, as they also expose those who do not by elimination. Now everyone will know who they are!

Educators are being duped into following strategies that are being touted as the latest advancement in learning when the truth is closer to indoctrination. Students want to do 'well' in school. The word 'well' is being redefined as scores on annual high stakes tests, spawned by NCLB, and now to be enhanced by Common Core Standards which will increase testing by many times over. Curriculum is being narrowed to fewer and fewer options. Science, social studies, art, music and physical education are being radically reduced in favor of math and English test prep. Teachers are having their autonomy and creativity taken away by canned lessons and pacing student learning to prepare for testing. These strategies are bought by districts that bring in outside 'consultants' who nurture the testing mania. How can we expect our students to think outside the box when their teachers are being crammed into a corner by threats, intimidation and coercion to go along with site and district policies and practices that are at the center of student mistreatment? Frightening teachers to conform to the corporate desire to control schools does nothing more than instill fear into their students so that they will also comply in becoming a generation of mindless workers, genuflecting at the behest of the likes of the Walton family, Bill Gates, and Eli Broad.

Are we to dismiss these as isolated events or does the high-stakes testing atmosphere provide the motivations and opportunities for these and other ways of harming our students? This should become a wakeup call to look at each of our states/districts/schools for evidence that high-stakes testing is a silent disabler of our students, the effects of which they will bear in both their educational and personal lives. But I want to caution that some readers may not want to believe what is happening in these situations or be prone to dismiss it as trivial and of little consequence unless it can be validated that it is always and everywhere. All it takes is for one student to be so petrified as to throw up that I would wish that all detractors would spend that moment within that student's inner being to experience what this testing mania is doing to just this one person. I think that would be enough.

A recent 'Ask Amy' was titled, 'Childhood abuse leads to a lifetime of pain'. There is nothing that sickens me more than to open the newspaper and read about one or more children being abused by trusted adults. It's disgusting. My first response is to protect these kids from the perpetrator(s), and then punish the abuser(s) so that they cannot ever do this again. Sometimes these are solitary events, and at other instances the cruel behavior takes place over a longer period of time. In most cases, the abusers attempt to conceal what has taken place, not wanting to be found out. Often the children may not even know that what is happening is wrong, and so they tolerate it in silence, thinking that this is the way it's supposed to be. Then later on they come to the realization of what was done to them scarred their life in unimaginable ways. There are also situations where another adult is aware that child abuse is taking place and either ignores it or is too frightened to call the authorities to stop it. While they themselves are not the perpetrators, they permit their fears to immobilize them into preventative action.

What is happening to many students is often not immediately apparent to them or their parents/guardians. It is insidious. Students are being seduced into believing they are just 'going to school', when in fact their hopes, dreams and aspirations are being taken from them by the systemic focus on high-stakes testing. It was not too many years ago that women suffered silently with abuse by men as many dismissed their claims as just so much blather and more than likely created by their own behaviors. Even though all women were not so treated, neither were all men the cause, but the anecdotal evidence and continual testimony of women gave credence to many types of abuse: mental, physical, sexual, etc....such that now we acknowledge that it is a systemic disorder found in our culture and that of many other societies. Our eyes are no longer closed but now opened.

For those who think we should be student advocates in this regard, join the thousands-individuals, organizations and school boards who have endorsed the National Resolution on High Stakes Testing. Go to your local school/board and ask what their test prep policies are and speak to those which are not in the best interests of students. While states require the distribution of tests, it cannot force students to take them and in some states parents can opt their children out. Help stop the high-stakes testing impact on our students!

What do you think? How seriously should we be taking the effects of high-stakes testing on students?

Horace (Rog) Lucido, now retired, taught high school physics and mathematics for over thirty-eight years as well as being both a university mentor and master teacher. He is the California Central Valley coordinator for the Assessment Reform Network and cofounder of Educators and Parents Against Testing Abuse (EPATA). He is the author of two books: Test, Grade and Score: Never More, 1993, and Educational Genocide: A Plague on our Children, 2010. He has written numerous articles on the impact of high-stakes testing as well as presenting workshops on Forgiving Learning.

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