Opting out of the tyranny of testing
By Aurora Rojer
Across the country, hundreds of thousands of parents are sending letters to their superintendents informing them that standardized testing has gotten out of control, and enough is enough. They are taking direct action in the form of civil disobedience: Their child will not be taking the new Common Core standardized tests. In just New York State alone, 175,000 students have opted out of their tests. From 12-year-olds, to parents, to community groups, to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the support for opting-out grows every day. But what are these tests? And what makes them so useless and unfair?
It all began in 1965, with President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). As a part of his “War on Poverty,” the ESEA was intended to lower the achievement gap between high and low income students by providing federal and state aid to schools with a large portion of high-needs (poor, often minority) students. The most recent reauthorization of the ESEA was in 2002, and is more commonly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This new version of the act reframes the problems in education. Rather than providing assistance to high-need schools—which was the cornerstone of the original ESEA—NCLB instead emphasizes rewards and punishments for performance on new state-wide standardized tests administered in grades three through eight, and once in high school. The sanctions—including replacing school staff, decreasing the authority of school-level administration, appointing private companies to take over the school, transforming it into a charter—increased each year schools failed to meet expectations, and if every child was not proficient by 2014, schools would be closed and their entire staff fired.
In 2009, President Obama’s executive initiative Race to the Top built on the NCLB framework. RTTT was not a law, but rather a competitive 4.35 billion dollar grant for education departments, dangled in front of states in desperate need of funds after the 2008 stock market crash. In order to receive money, and to avoid the penalties from not reaching NCLB’s unreasonable benchmarks, schools had to adopt certain educational policies including teacher and principal performance evaluations based on student test scores, and the adoption of common standards and subsequent common standardized tests.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were not technically required in order to receive RTTT funds; in principle, states could create their own standards. However, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other wealthy philanthropists were funding the pricy creation of CCSS, and had already gotten the approval of the Department of Education at the same time that RTTT was announced. It was much easier for states to simply adopt the pre-written, pre-approved CCSS than spend precious funds developing their own. Indeed, 48 states adopted these standards before they were even completed, ignoring the fact that the standards were written by testing companies and politicians rather than by teachers and education experts, simply because they needed the money promised by RTTT.
The Common Core State Standards have been criticized by many individuals of vastly different backgrounds, from Tea Partiers to socialists. Over 500 early childhood educators signed a statement on March 2, 2010, charging that the standards are developmentally inappropriate for the earlier grades from kindergarten to third. Furthermore, as Diane Ravitch, an education historian and scholar, explained in a speech to the Modern Language Association, there was no public participation, transparency, or even field testing of the standards before they were implemented, nor is there any process to revise them; the committee that wrote them no longer exists, and no other organization has the authority to go back and make changes.
But opting out is an indictment not only of the CCSS, but of the malignant tests that go with them, namely Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Administered entirely online, these tests consist of multiple choice and short answer questions. Remarkably, the essays are graded by computers. Unable to detect the meaning of language, the computers instead rely on length, grammar, and the use of direct quotations. It would be asinine to believe that this is a promotion of critical thinking. In addition, Russ Walsh, the current coordinator of College Reading at Rider University, who has worked for 45 years as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, and curriculum director in public schools, evaluated the reading passages from the PARCC tests and found that “the passages chosen are about two grade levels above the readability of the grade and age of the children.” Furthermore, the passing grade for these tests was set arbitrarily high, so that about 70 percent of students are certain to fail. Parents and teachers protest against demoralizing students by first giving them a test that is complicated far beyond their capacity and then labeling them a failure when they perform as expected.
“These tests are predicated on the assumption that simply demanding more will lead to better results. But after over a decade of NCLB with minimal results, we now know that is not the case. Educational inequality is not a result of bad teachers or schools. Dedicating all of our resources to fixing these problems ignores the larger issue: We have tremendous economic inequality in this country.”
The tests are not only poorly designed, but also do not provide valuable feedback to teachers and parents. The scores come months after the tests were given, usually when students have already moved on to a new class. Further, the scores are a simple number; they
do not show where students did well and where they did poorly. A teacher who spent all year in a classroom with a child does not need a single arbitrary score to tell them how well that child knew how to read or do math; they give and grade homework, projects, presentations, quizzes, and tests in order to do that. Parents, if they were wondering about their child’s progress, could just pull out their child’s report card.
Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, claims another reason to have these tests is to have “an honest way to measure that you’re hitting those high standards and to have transparency across the country.” Perhaps being able to compare students in different states is a valid concern, but the fact is that the United States already has a way of doing this: It is called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and it has been measuring exactly that since 1992. The NAEP has no high stakes attached; its sole purpose is to provide valuable information. It also uses a sampling method, rather than testing the entire population, because as anyone who has taken an introductory statistics course knows, one can be 99% confident about trends in a population just from analyzing a sample of that group.
Statisticians know that testing an entire population is not only unnecessary, but ill-advised because it is so costly. PARCC and Smarter Balanced are no exception. Ravitch, in her MLA speech, explains that “the cost of implementing the Common Core and the new tests is likely to run into the billions at a time of deep budget cuts.” Every school district has to buy new computers and bandwidth, since the tests are administered online, along with teaching and testing materials that align with the new standards. Ravitch faults what many have called the educational-industrial complex for this, in which testing corporations, charter chains, and technology companies view public education as an emerging market rather than a cornerstone of our democratic society.
The tests are a waste of time as well as money. Schools have up to 20 consecutive schools days for testing each time the assessment is administered, according to the PARCC website, and that is twice a year. That adds up to 40 days of testing. Though students are not being tested all day for each of these days, testing disrupts the entire school schedule and most teachers cannot resume regular lessons until all students are done testing and the schedule has returned to normal. These 40 days also do not account for time spent preparing for tests, which, as will be discussed later on, is not insignificant.
Students are not the only ones being tested by these exams. Teachers and schools as well are judged based on Value-Added Measurements (VAMs), which “attempt to measure a teacher’s impact on student achievement — that is, the value he or she adds — apart from other factors that affect achievement, such as individual ability, family environment, past schooling, and the influence of peers,” according to the Rand Corporation, a public policy think tank. But is this possible? The answer is no, at least not through these tests. According to this system, all teachers need to be judged by their students’ test scores, even though the tests are only in math and reading. Science, art, and language teachers’ salaries, bonuses, and even jobs are on the line based on how their students perform in other subjects. Further, students are not randomly distributed in classes. Principals will often give experienced teachers more difficult students, which will bring down their VAM scores. Multiple studies have shown that teachers’ ratings are deeply affected by the types of students in their classes, despite attempts to control for these factors. And of course, students’ test scores reflect more than just their teachers’ skill. VAMs cannot truly disentangle whether a test score came down to if a student had breakfast or got in a fight with their friend that day. In a sample as small as a single classroom, a few skewed scores can have huge effects on the teacher’s evaluation.
When teachers’ jobs, schools’ funding, and the ability to remain open are on the line, it is no surprise that the resulting stress manifests itself in a toxic learning environment. One response to the high-stakes pressure is illustrated by the Success Academies in New York City. As described in a recent New York Times article, the entire school centers around passing standardized tests: “To prepare for the reading tests, students spend up to 90 minutes each day working on ‘Close Reading Mastery’ exercises, consisting of passages followed by multiple-choice questions. The last two Saturdays before the exams, students are required to go to school for practice tests,” and students’ scores are posted on the wall for others to see and judge afterward.
Schools that cannot bear to subject their children to Success Academy test prep need to find other ways to keep from getting shut down. The recent testing scandal in Atlanta shows what happens when teachers and principals are driven to desperation: In 2011, 44 out of 56 schools in Atlanta were found to have cheated on the high-stakes state test of 2009. The scandal implicated 178 teachers and principals, who manually corrected answers of students. On April 1, 2015, 11 teachers accused of being involved in the scandal were convicted on racketeering charges. Clearly high-stakes testing with unreasonable standards forces educators to make impossible decisions.
These tests are predicated on the assumption that simply demanding more will lead to better results. But after over a decade of NCLB with minimal results, we now know that is not the case. Educational inequality is not a result of bad teachers or schools. Dedicating all of our resources to fixing these problems ignores the larger issue: We have tremendous economic inequality in this country. A good teacher can change a life, but it is unfair to demand that teachers make up for hunger, homelessness, and neglect, particularly when we are judging them unfairly and paying them so little. If we really wanted all of our children to be educated, we would first make sure that they are all fed, clothed, and cared for. We would create jobs for their parents and ensure they could afford doctors’ visits. Setting higher standards and demanding better results is not going to change the facts—it’s only going to waste time and money and demoralize students and teachers.
For these reasons, parents everywhere are saying no. They are demanding that the testing mania needs to stop. The CCSS are flawed and their tests are destructive, and parents and students have found a powerful way to express their disapproval: by not taking the tests. Ira Shor, a professor at the City University of New York and parent of a public school student, exhorts: “Authorities count on our quiet compliance to cement their plans into place. We need defiance instead, for the sake of the kids and for the sake of the public sector without which democracy cannot survive. When we opt-out we rescue our kids, our public schools, and our society at the same time.”